BRAINS! 5 things Zombies can teach us about Practice — Part 1 of 2

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In practice, we take a whole piece of music and work on tiny parts to prepare it for performance. The word “rehearse” comes from the same root as “harrow”, which means to split apart clods of dirt to prepare the land for planting (and harvest).

Zombies also break up dirt… and have a different harvest in mind. Who better to teach us a thing or two about practice?

The first post focuses on Brains and the second on Bunkers. Both will explore how we practice.

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BBRRAAAAAAIINNSSSS! BBRRAAAAAAIINNSSSS!

Brains get zombies outta the grave in the morning — they don’t need a cup to enjoy their Joe. Their relentless pursuit of brains is their greatest strength, but having a singular focus should also be of grave concern to them.

1) Brrraaaainnnnssss: Good!

Zombies are terrifying because of tireless deadication to their pursuit… of brains; they break down walls, bite through barriers, and push down narrow passages.

Be tireless, breaking down passagework into small, bite-sized sections.

Unless you are specifically trying to run through a piece, practice in 2-&-4-bar chunks.Your own precious brain will thank you! Repeat the first phrase, varying your focus each time on things like pitch, rhythm, dynamics, special markings, and memory. Then put it back together. Then break down and reconstruct the second phrase. Then string the two phrases together. Etc.

A step-by-step approach for pianists & drummers might include separating the hands (and feet!) and then reconnecting them, note by note, before adding in the rhythm and finally the dynamics. Wind players might want to isolate double-tonguing and slurs from their notework. String players may want to practice the bowing in subdivisions to connect their bowing distribution to the rhythm. Guitarists may want to practice the strumming pattern separately from the chord changes.

Whatever your approach, don’t worry if success isn’t immediate; keep nibbling away, bit by bit. You’ll get there! Do zombies let slow-but-steady progress deter them? Of corpse not!

2) Brains are great! Talk to me, Brain!

Zombies lead the simple unlife. They’re ok with moving slowly because each day holds the same thing for them: wander, sense, lurch, eat; wander, sense, lurch, eat. They don’t mind the tedium; they always stop to smell Rose before they chase after her.

Practice smarter.

Hey! That’s the name of this Publication, which you should totally Follow.

Be faster by not practicing like a zombie! You want to be better today than you were yesterday; make steady progress instead of occasional lurches forward. Start each session by asking yourself what your goals are and what needs to happen to achieve them.

For the first few years, your main objectives are pretty clear:

“It’s gotta be in tune, in time, with a good sound.” — Alan Harris, Eastman School of Music

The four most important things for fast progress are a metronome, tuner, drone, and recording device.

If you’re serious about progressing, you’ll always be trying to perfect your rhythm and pitch. If you’re a beginner, practice them separately: use a metronome (like Nome for iOS or Android) to work on rhythm, then use a tuner or drone to work on pitch.

As you advance, you’ll become more comfortable listening for both rhythm and pitch and you’ll have the metronome and drone on at the same time (check out Pitchronome for iOS if you wanna do it from a single screen).

To work on your tone, record yourself playing. You’ll be surprised at how different you sound, similar to hearing a recording of yourself talking. Start by asking yourself if the sound is clear, focused, resonant and beautiful.

As you advance, you’ll add more descriptive words like “warm” or “dark” to identify the quality of the sound. You’ll also start to be concerned with things like projection and whether your vibrato is contributing to your sound.

Lurching is hard. Walking is easy. Move from lurch to walk.

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3) Brrraaaainnnnssss: Bad!

On the flip side, how many zombies have escaped the grave, stumbled around in pursuit of baseball-bat-wielding humans, clawed away at doors, windows, and battered walls… only to fall short because of a simple trap between them & brains?! Chasing after brains only, as the end-all, is dangerous.

Pursue more in your practice than just “NNOOOOTTTEEESSSS!! NNOOOOTTTEEESSSS!!”

Once you’ve gorged yourself on all the notes on the page, you’re not done! Learning notes is one small facet of our musical study; it’s only the preparation for the work of practice.

As you advance, the emphasis of your practice will shift to things like timbre, vibrato, phrase structure, pacing, and historically-informed performance. At the advanced level, practice will become less of a “did I hit it” and more of an “it’s impossible for me to miss.”

You’ll also concern yourself with the sound worlds of individual composers (for instance, Mozart and Haydn do not sound the same) and what your interpretation adds to the legacy of the piece you’re playing. Zombies would know — most of them were around when Mozart and Haydn were!

(Check out Yo-Yo Ma’s advice on practice to see more about where you’re headed.)

4) Brains are lame! Shuddup Brain!

Let’s be honest…

Zombies are gross. Like, really gross. Those that emerged out of the dirt are — by definition — dirty. They’ve got torn clothing, grody fingernails, and don’t even get me started on their hair. But do zombies care what people think of them? Nope! They’ve got thick (albeit, rotten) skin!

When you’re practicing, don’t worry about what other people think.

We’ve all been there. Your roommates or family members are home and you sound horrible today. Someone whose playing you admire gets into the practice room next to you. You’re warming up for an audition and 15 other people are in the same room playing the same thing you are.

Typically, one of two things happens. Your practice might become timid: you play quieter, less frequently, and as though you’re just messing around. Or, your practice might become bold: you play louder and try to show off — if you sound bad but you’re playing really, really fast, it’s still impressive, right?!

“Be task-conscious, not self-conscious.” — David Brown, Cleveland Institute of Music

Make your practice about accomplishing your work and not about what others think. You wouldn’t impress zombies, nor would the zombies judge your playing imperfections — after all, they’re not mean, they’re hungry!

The less you worry about people hearing you in the practice room, the less you’ll worry when you’re on stage; actively practice being task-conscious in your practice room and you’ll be less self-conscious when you perform.

You’re already one up on zombies for being conscious at all — don’t let that be a bad thing!

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5) Brainfood

Zombies’ only care in the world is getting those sweet, sweet brains. But mabye they shouldn’t exclude all other possible sources of nourishment.

To quote author and zombie food-ethicist Anita B. Rain:

“…even side-stepping the myriad concerns of whether these brains are from organically-raised, cage-free humans, it is unclear whether [the zombies’] predilection for brains is nurture or nature. The lens with which they intrinsically view their feeding is a black-and-white, brains-only scenario; has anybody (or anyformerbody) considered if they would be equally well-nourished but better-preserved eating an alternative source of nutrients, e.g. a kale & quinoa salad?” — Dawn of the Bread

Broaden your musical horizons.

Listen to music that you like, but listen with intention. Analyze it, dissect it. Then find music like it — by the same band or composer, and listen to it with intention. Then find out who those musicians influenced or were influenced by. Listen to that music with intention. Soon, you’ll be an expert on your faves.

But even more important, listen to music that’s outside of your comfort zone. Listen multiple times — each time you’ll understand more of it.

Read about music (my current recommendation: The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross). And to explore and read about new music, follow my Publication, What I’m Listening To, which will definitely broaden any horizon.

To summarize:

  • Practice one thing at a time, in small sections
  • Use a tuner, metronome, drone, and recording device
  • Focus on more than just learning notes
  • Practice practicing for you
  • Advance more quickly by learning about music outside the practice room

In writing this post, I thought more about zombies & brains than ever before. But one thought kept gnawing at me: how do we survive a zombie apocalypse?

Stay “tuned” for Part 2, which examines what Bunkers can teach us about Practice…

Follow Eric on Medium.

Thanks to Joey Hosford, Sarah Imbriaco, Bruce Moore and David Ormai for reading drafts of this post.