Category Archives: Technique

Intentional Practice

As a piano teacher, I spend 50% of my time teaching kids how to read music and the other 50% of my time teaching them how to practice. As a voice teacher, I spend 50% of my time teaching body awareness and technique, and 50% of my time teaching them how to practice. And as a dance teacher, I spend 75% of my time teaching “moves,” 20% teaching technique, and 5% teaching them how to practice. Of course, we run drills and repetitions, practicing in class. But that’s not the same as teaching someone how to acquire a skill on their own. In an attempt to rectify this imbalance in my teaching, I thought I would take some of the insights I’ve garnered from teaching piano and voice, and share them here for any and all interested in learning more about practicing.

First, my definition of practice:
Practicing is the process of taking something difficult, and making it easy.
That’s it. Take something hard, make it easy. For me, this idea of practice extends to all things; mathematics, literature, science, the arts, philosophy. In my brain, I do make a distinction for the practice of physical actions where the goal is to train the body and practice of intellectual things that focus on that specific, grey matter part of the body. When training the body, we need to train the mind, too, but the end goal is for the body to be able to execute without the mind having to consciously process in minutiae. It just takes too long to go from the brain through all of the processes to the commands to the body to the actual execution. We need the grey matter in the beginning, but my methods of practicing always strive for minimizing the role of the brain in the end.

Stage 1: Practicing for “The Click.”
My college piano professor had a saying that has been repeated by many a teacher: “Practice DOESN’T make perfect. PERFECT practice makes perfect.” The challenge for us is that it is near impossible to start out perfect. So the first part of our practice is to get to perfect. Slow, meticulous, methodical. This is my mantra to get there. I have two main tools for this.

The first is the zoom tool. In piano, I often say, if you can’t play one note right, you can’t play two notes right. If you can’t play two notes, you can’t play the measure. If you can’t play the measure, you can’t play the phrase. And so on. One of the easiest ways to take something difficult and make it easy is to zoom in to the point where we can be successful, master that little chunk, and then start to add these little pieces together. Most often, students try to do too much at once. Mastery is built on the understanding of every fine detail, and its often easier to learn those details one at a time than to try to tackle everything at once. Sometimes, you can take out some details, such as styling, as you master the basic movement. Then, go back and add the detail as the next goal to accomplish.

The second is the slow-motion tool. The slower we go, the more time we have for our brain to process to think, and to execute with accuracy. Eventually, we want to get the brain out of the way, but if we’ve got to use it, lets give it the time it needs to do its thing. With repetition, we can minimize the amount of time we spend thinking about each step in the process.

Throughout this stage of the process, its important to be observant, think critically and make adjustments. If you screw up the same way two or three times in a row, address the difficulty immediately. Zoom in, and drill the problem. Or slow down. Its better to take your time in the beginning than to be unlearning mistakes. From my own experiences, unlearning mistakes is a painful and tedious process.

Stage 2: Perfect Practice
When I’m working with young students, I often find that they short cut the first part of the process and then never really get to the second part. Once you are able to do something perfect, then the practicing for retention begins. We want as many clean, perfect repetitions as possible. Usually, I set my students goals: 3 times right in a row, 5 times right in a row, and as they get to more complicated and challenging music, 10 times right in a row. The goal is to build consistency, and identify any remaining weaknesses in execution which should be addressed with the stage 1 tools.

This is also the time to slowly increase speed. We don’t immediately jump to the desired speed, we want to build up gradually, always remaining in control of our execution. I have lots of other little tools that I often use to assist in building up speed. For instance, I will move as quickly as I can to a predetermined pausing point(s), acclimating my body to the quick actions. Then, I’ll shift where the pausing point is. Eventually, I can put it all back together without the pauses.

In addition, it can be useful to start from scratch, modify your technique or your way of thinking. In piano, I will sometimes practice staccato (short, detached notes), just to force my body through the same motions in a different way. With singing, that might mean practicing a pop song with classical technique. In dancing, I might adjust the scale of the pulse or the amount of stretch in the connection. The more ways you force your brain to grapple with the same material, the more mastery you develop over it.

One last thought on practicing in general: Set clear, deliberate goals for your practice time. It feels good to accomplish. One small thing done is progress. And it may be that the next day, you lose that progress. Don’t worry, it will come to you easier the second time. In the movie, Shawshank Redemption, Morgan Freeman’s character narrates, “Geology is the study of pressure over time.” Practice is the same thing. Pressure over time. Practice smart. Work hard. Apply pressure over time. “That’s all it takes really, pressure and time.”

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Filed under C-Jam, Technique, Theory

Reference Points and Balance

As I mentioned before, I took up running this year. In addition to the health benefits, I’ve been enjoying the challenge of mastering a new skill. Running changes how I use my body, and gets me thinking about it in totally different ways than in dance. Now, I’m much more focused on efficiency of motion, stride length, foot strike. These things were never in my consciousness before.

After my first race, I tried reading up on technique for running using the wonders of Google. Combined with information from friends, this tack had worked well for me to learn about training practices. But I kept running into competing information without a lot of good guidance on how to assess and assimilate that information. What’s the form for sprinting vs. middle distances vs. long runs? I noticed that my local gym had a trainer who offered running form analysis sessions, and made an appointment.

At our second session, he was running me through warm-ups and technique drills. Through almost every drill, my left leg was struggling. Not as strong. Not as flexible.  Not as coordinated. Clearly, I’m right leg dominant, something that swing dancing (Charleston) has exacerbated. In my dancing, I practice on both sides of my body, but just being out social dancing adds so many increased repetitions to a single side for certain actions. Whether its the constant tension/connection on the lead’s left hand all the way through to the shoulder or the right leg’s swinging kick out of a swing out, swing-dancing is not inherently balanced.

Of course, if the only thing we are seriously training for is the dance, that becomes our entire world. Until I started pushing myself with running, I never really took stock of the imbalances and tolls that dance was having on my body. Sure, I did yoga and stretched, and am generally more body aware than most. But I was never invested deeply enough to see my own reflection, the parameters that I existed within.

As always, I tend to extrapolate my experiences out into my life. By changing the external boundaries and borders, the habits and patterns that define my every day experiences, I’ve come to see my own edges more clearly. No longer can I comfortably blend in to the familiar context of my life. I’ve come to see the imbalances that have crept in and become comfortable. Its not the lack of balance to stay centered, standing on one foot. Its the balance that comes from working all areas equally, from seeing what needs strengthening and engaging with it, what is tight that needs to be loosened, and making myself ever more capable.

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Filed under Technique

Pulse in Lindy and Blues

I am a firm believer that pulse is one of the core elements to all social dancing. I can’t claim to have an expert opinion on the matter because I lack knowledge in ballroom/latin/tango. . .basically, anything that isn’t swing. From what I’ve seen though, every dance has its own means of pulse. When we are teaching, Susanne and I emphasize that the pulse is the primary means of communicating rhythm with your partner.

That pulse is most apparent in Charleston, where there’s a pulse downward on every beat. I like starting beginners off with Charleston for just this reason. They can focus on getting pulse into their bodies, and feeling and communicating rhythms. Then, we can build up by adding weight changes moving forward and backward. Continue reading

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Filed under Blues Dancing, Charleston, lindy hop, Technique, Theory

Social to Dancing.

The very term “Social Dancing” implies two very different types of activities coming together, socializing and dancing. I often find it hard to do both at the same time. I can talk to a partner, but then I can barely dance with her. Or I can dance, but its hard to talk when your partner is whipping through a swingout. There’s also the option to sit a dance out to have a more involved conversation, but that can be a challenge, too, if you’re trying to talk over the music. In the past few weeks, I’ve had two experiences at the opposite end of a spectrum that have gotten me thinking more about the nature of social dancing. Continue reading

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Filed under community, Technique, Theory

Tuning Your Instrument – Body Maintenance

Photo by Amy Groark

Recently, I had a piano tuner come out to give my piano a much needed tune-up. I also teach music lessons in a store that does repairs, so I constantly see people in and out with various instruments to get pads changed or a sticky key fixed. As a singer and a dancer, I think of my body as my instrument. Unfortunately, I can’t exactly outsource that kind of regular maintenance. Sure, once a year I’ll splurge on a massage, but I use my body way too much to rely solely on a once a year thing.

When I was still young and stupid, I treated my body carelessly without thinking about the implications. Then, I started having soreness in my knee which I later discovered was being caused by tight hamstrings and hips. Much like a beautiful woman got me started dancing, another beautiful woman got me started with yoga. My knees are much better now, and better than that, I am much more conscious about my body and its regular maintenance and upkeep.

Here are a few of my favorite poses for a quick tune up:

  • Hero Pose – This pose can be tough on the knees for those who are inexperienced, but there are a lot of ways to modify it. If you have trouble with it, find a good yoga teacher and ask them to help you out. Its a great way to compress and squeeze the hamstrings. It also minimizes the circulation to the legs so that when you come out of the pose the legs get fresh blood and oxygen.
  • Legs-Up-the-Wall – In this variation, they place a lot of support under the lower back/hips which creates a nice opening in the chest. Again, this helps the blood drain from the legs to circulate fresh blood into the legs. In a pinch, I’ll use this after hero’s pose to quickly refresh my legs. I can usually stay fresh for another few hours at dance weekends with this trick. Continue reading

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Filed under Technique, tools of the trade

Smooth Criminals: My Stompology Thoughts

“As he came into the window, It was the sound of a crescendo.”  – Michael Jackson.

After some time in the ICU of my bed recovering from the Stompology weekend, I’m finally coherent enough to put some thoughts down about my time at Stompology 2011. This was my second year there, and I was just as blown away as the first year. The quality of instruction there is amazing, and I always learn so much about dance. I was particularly taken with Nathan Bugh and Evita Arce and their incredibly thoughtful and articulate teaching.

I took a lot away from the weekend, and Susanne and I have posted our videos online for you to see some of the material that was covered. The thing that best summed up everything that the weekend embodied was the final class where each of the instructors presented their rendition of the Shim-Sham. Nathan Bugh’s shim-sham (it starts at 52″) blew my mind. I’m really sorry that I missed the first part of his shim-sham on the video, but I still captured enough of it for you to see what I’m talking about.

At the very start, Nathan’s shim-sham feels bland, small and uninspired. Little hand gestures (he called them “Magic hands”) would put his feet out. It was so simple and basic, and when he first taught it, I was thoroughly unimpressed. Then, he moved on to the crossovers where his hands came more to life, eventually “pulling” his body through the crossovers. By the tacky-Annie, he was full into it with a great little variation that grew the energy with this explosion of movement. Then, he hit the half-breaks. I don’t know that I can even break down what he did with words, but visually, he exploded. All the pent up energy from the small movements’ slow growth burst out of him. The video really doesn’t do them justice.

Nathan’s shim-sham was the sound of a crescendo, to quote Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.” What I was thoroughly unimpressed with at first, I became totally enamored with in the end. Those tiny movements that started off his shim sham where a pianissimo, a soft dynamic, intentionally put there to create context for what was to come. I now find myself constantly thinking about dynamics in my dancing, both solo and partnered. Am I dancing loud or dancing soft? How am I shaping this phrase?

In her Charleston class, Laura Glaess talked about the need for repose after some awesome movements to give the audience a chance to take it in. This kind of thoughtful, composed editing is something that the instructors never explicitly talked about, but it was so deeply embedded in everything they did that I couldn’t help but notice. Every inch of the instructors’ bodies worked towards creating a shape, a motion, and a phrase all at once. . .this is what I am now working to accomplish in all my dancing. Its time to edit myself, and make my dancing a more coherent statement about who I am as a dancer. I want to be a smooth criminal.

Once again, my thanks go out to all of the teachers and organizers behind Stompology. The organizers did a great job putting together this event, even in the midst of some unexpected tribulations. And the teachers astound me. The depth of their knowledge and thoughtfulness and passion around the dance are a true inspiration.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Charleston, Technique, Theory

Necessary and Sufficient

Guest author, Christina Austin, shares some thoughts from Stompology:

photo by Kevin Quaderer

My greatest flaw as a dancer is probably my tendency to let my social anxiety strangle me.

My fear of screwing up on the dance floor manifests in frequent “thinking face” when I’m being led, even by familiar leads, through new or complex patterns, and in my tendency to choke when I ask a ‘high-status’ leader for a dance. My favorite definition of “choke” is from the book Deep Survival: a reversion to the state of being a beginner, wherein you consciously think about what you’re doing, as opposed to the more advanced state of performance where “muscle memory” largely controls the specifics of movement. To choke is to lose one’s flow.  The mechanics of this for me personally usually looks like bad posture and too much tension in my arms and body, which hinders my ability to follow sensitively. In either case, the process is too much thinking and the product is less than sublime dancing.

Which is a shame, because my favorite part of dancing, the high that I am always chasing that keeps me coming back, is found in the moments when I am not in my head but in my body, fully with the music and my partner.  There is a thrilling physicality to just letting go and dancing.

The off-the-dance-floor part of this story relates to my other passionate hobby, which is rock climbing. There is a term in rock climbing, “lead head,” [as in leading, not as in the element Pb] which refers to one’s ability to assume and manage risk while putting the rope up. There are genuine dangers associated with this- you can really die or (more commonly) you can really injure yourself badly as a consequence of failure. Nonetheless, the most rewarding climbs are those during which you do not dwell on the dangers or think about falling but simply climb.  Some people are never capable of this, and the state of having a good lead head is something most climbers pursue relentlessly and achieve only intermittently.

This spring, I have had an amazing run of weekends during which my lead head has been excellent. I have, for the first time in several years, been able to sidestep my panic response and concentrate on climbing.  The key to this has been discrimination between rational fear and irrational fear/panic response.  (See Deep Survival or The Rock Warrior’s Way for further reading.) Rational fear is dealt with by taking reasonable precautions and irrational fear is ignored/discarded/not consulted. And discarding irrational fear and moving through it feels amazing.

Lately, I have been thinking about these concepts as it relates to my dancing. Continue reading

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Filed under Blues Dancing, Technique, Theory