Triage in the Practice Room

Imagine a busy hospital emergency room. An ambulance roars up, and paramedics quickly unload a patient, clearly in distress. A doctor runs up, takes a quick look, and says:

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“I see you’ve been stung by a bee!”

“Yes, but..” the patient responds, weakly.

“Well, let’s get some ointment on that and see if we can get you feeling better.”

At this point one of the paramedics speaks up:

“Doctor, what about the stab wounds?”

“Oh, we can get to those later. Right now I want to try out this new ointment!”

I like to think that scenes like this do not take place in emergency rooms on a daily basis. In our practice rooms, however, this kind of thing happens all the time. I see students every week who arrive at their lesson very well prepared on the music they were good at last week, having barely touched the passages that challenge them, if they’ve practiced them at all. This is not a good recipe for continued improvement (or good grades in lessons, it turns out).

tri·age

trēˈäZH,ˈtrēˌäZH
noun
1.(in medical use) the assignment of degrees of urgency to wounds or illnesses to decide the order of treatment of a large number of patients or casualties.
verb
1.assign degrees of urgency to (wounded or ill patients).

Of course, in a real emergency room, the first person who sees the patient is almost always a triage specialist. This person assesses the situation and determines what issues the patient has, what level of urgency is attached to each problem, and assigns resources accordingly. This same process can be applied to every practice session.

At the beginning of your practice time, make a list of three to five problems to work on during this session. It’s best to select very small targets. In other words, rather than “I need to learn the third movement of my concerto,” instead say “I’m going to work on the awkward fingerings in measures 54-58 of the third movement of my concerto.” It may well be true that you need to work on the whole movement, but right now those measures are your “stab wound,” while measures 1-53 might be just a “bee sting”.

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Once you’ve selected your targets (and assuming you’re properly warmed up), grab a timer. I like to set mine for 15 minutes. Some people prefer 10, others 20. Over time, you can figure out how many minutes work best for you. In any case, spend those minutes focusing with laser beam intensity on one problem. Work the problem, slowly, carefully, METHODICALLY. Do not practice mistakes. Play it, sing it, finger it, buzz it, play it again. Record yourself and then listen critically. Listen to a professional recording of the passage. Do your very best to achieve some level of improvement in that passage during the allotted time.

Once the time is up, STOP!!! If things are going really well and you feel additional time would really help right now, add 10 minutes. I find I rarely need to do this. If you’re selecting appropriate targets (ie, small enough), you’ll usually find that you’ve accomplished what you need to in the first chunk of time.

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Take a minute or two to relax. Pat yourself on the back for a job well done. Write a quick note detailing the progress you’ve made in your practice journal (you do have a practice journal, right?). Then, move on to the next target immediately. Repeat until your time is almost up. You’re almost done! Now take a few minutes to jot down in your journal where you stand for your next practice session. This will help your triage next time you practice.

The crucial step here is picking your targets intelligently. This is a skill. You won’t necessarily be great at it right away. It’ll take some practice. But, even if you don’t pick the absolute best targets, you’ll still have something concrete to focus your attention on. You’ll immediately get results. You might find yourself revising your targets to be bigger or smaller. You might need to adjust the amount of time per target, and how many targets you can realistically attack in one session. That’s part of the process.

Every so often, take a step back and play through the entire piece, or program, or section… whatever seems appropriate. Get the bigger picture and come up with a new set of goals, then get busy. You’ll be amazed at the results you can achieve!!

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