You might not know it from looking at me, but there was roughly a decade of my life, from my teens into my twenties, in which I was captivated by lifting weights. I voluntarily went to bed early to get good nights’ of sleep, I tried to eat a healthy, high-protein diet, I read everything I could get my hands on on the subject, and every weekday after school you could find me at the local YMCA for an hour or two, “pumping iron.” At this point, as a music educator, I feel the need to say that I was still making a point to get up early to do an hour of violin practice before school, and did another in the evening, but lifting weights was certainly a passion of mine for many years.
I mention this because I heard something quoted as I continued to read and study about how the body actually grows stronger and builds muscle – “strength is skill.” And one common approach – often employed by Russian and other Eastern Bloc strength coaches and strength athletes was what is known as “high frequency, low intensity” training. All this simply means is that athletes would train a movement – squats for example – up to 5 times per week, but only ever at low to moderate levels of exertion. The principle behind this approach to training is that moving weight is as much if not more about training the central nervous system than it is about building muscle. And by going through the same movements with a barbell multiple times a week at low intensities, the central nervous system is trained and primed without ever overly fatiguing the muscles. It is literally referred to as “practicing” the lifts.
But this type of “high frequency” approach is not unique to weightlifting, nor to practicing a stringed instrument. In fact, quite the opposite. The longer I’ve lived, the more I’ve come to see that almost every discipline that one applies themself to benefits from daily practice. A golfers swing, a basketball player’s dribble and shot, a baseball player’s swing, a soccer player’s dribble and shot – these are all things that you’ll hear the announcer on TV or the radio say, “He’s got such a natural swing,” or “She’s got such a soft touch on the ball.” But the truth of that matter is that what’s “natural” or “soft” is the result of countless hundreds and thousands of careful repetitions, often carried out daily. As anyone who has developed skill in a sport can attest – a day or two away from your bat or your ball and your swing starts to feel more unnatural and you start to lose that “touch” on your dribble with your hands or your feet. That’s your central nervous system saying, “Hey, you haven’t used these pathways in a while. It’s going to take us a minute to get them up and running again.”
My point is: any physical skill – and playing a musical instrument is most definitely a mental and a physical skill – benefits from being practiced frequently. The only reason strength athletes have to limit their practice to 5 or 6 days a week is that it’s physically taxing, and there’s diminishing returns on their effort if they don’t give their body sufficient time to rest and recuperate. Fortunately, the same is not true of practicing a stringed instrument. Ideally, the practitioner of a stringed instrument finds themself in a perfectly ergonomic position from head to toe as they practice, and exerts little physical effort in producing even the deepest and richest of tones. With scheduled rest breaks and a bit of proactive stretching, a stringed instrument can most certainly be practiced every day – indeed that’s the way we learn it best, as the connection between our brains and our arms, hands, and fingers grows stronger and stronger through the frequent use and repetition.
Something else I’ve come to understand as I’ve grown older is that “life” simply happens sometimes. We can’t foresee or control everything, and from time to time the best-laid plans get laid to waste by events outside our power of influence. However, just because we might not actually accomplish practicing 365 days out of the year, that does not mean that we should not set out with the intent to do so! Practicing every day might seem like a daunting concept at first, but I can guarantee you with almost 100% certainty that it’s easier than practicing “sometimes,” or “a few days,” or “when I get around to it.” When the culture in your home becomes that practicing is just as common and expected as eating breakfast in the morning or getting ready for bed at night, a lot of the quibbling and quarreling that we all dread goes right out the window. And the success that results from daily practice motivates students and parents alike to keep on practicing.
As for myself, I’m going to take the reminder of this Foundational Principle as a challenge, and in addition to teaching I’m going to plan to do some personal practice of my own every single day between now and the end of our Summer ’20 Semester. I’ll extend the invitation to anyone who wants to accept that challenge along with me. Who’s in?