Tag Archives: by Craig Sparks

Branded for Life, Part 2: One Step More

As I mentioned in Part 1, this past year, I branded my life as the “Year of Awesomeness.” Over the past month, I’ve been contemplating what I want to make next year about. After toying with lots of possibilities, talking with a close friend, running ideas past my wife, I’ve finally found the words that resonate most with where I am in my life: One Step More.

My pursuit of running has had a major impact on my life. I’ve never had a competitive drive, always longing for cooperative efforts. But I found myself pushing myself, and then realizing after the race how much further I can go. I didn’t even know how far I could reach, and now I want to reach farther in all aspects of my life.

Far too often, I have settled for good enough or assumed I had done my best without expending the extra effort. I would reach as far as the edge of my comfort zone allowed, and whatever lay beyond that was just outside of my grasp. This year, I want to take that extra step outside of my comfort zone. I want to put in that little bit of extra effort to see just how much farther I can get, how much faster I can go, how much better I can be. It is time to subvert the self-imposed limits that I too often wrap myself in like a warm blanket.

While last year had the “Year of Awesomeness” chart, this year will be a little different. No charts, graphs, or diagrams to assess my progress. There is no end to progress to. There is no striving to reach any particular goal other than that of striving. So this year, there will be an empty jar to fill. Every extra step. Every training run I push myself on, practice session I work a little harder on, every extra phone call I make to book the band, every little step extra I take. . . I will write it down, date it, and drop it in the jar. At the end of 2013, I will pull them all out, reading each and every one, and take stock of how far those many little extra steps take me.

It is time to strive. One Step More.

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Branded for Life, Part 1

As I sit sipping eggnog we picked up from the farmer’s market this weekend, I realize that the end of another year is fast approaching. Last year at this time, I was taking stock of my life, and wasn’t pleased by what I saw. My life had gotten away from me. I didn’t feel like I was making choices, I had just been sucked along for the ride. My career felt stagnant, good friendships had fallen by the wayside…It probably didn’t help that I was often eating a 1 lb. bag of Twizzlers and a tube of pringles for lunch regularly. Oh yeah, while I was still relatively skinny, I had reached my heaviest weight ever, felt lethargic, and was starting to have issues with my back. Apparently, age and my body were not getting along very well. Needless to say, it was hard for me to take stock of my life, and see the “fulfillment” inventory running so low. Continue reading

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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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The Hardest Thing

Today, I was driving down to work, mulling about things, and my thoughts turned to dancing. There’s been a dearth of dancing in my life lately. I’ve been preoccupied with other activities like running my first race and my 5 year anniversary. But according to my meandering thoughts, dancing is never far from my heart.

I was contemplating the hardest thing about dancing. Balance? Frame and consistent connection? Maintaining a pulse and communicating rhythm? Maybe aerials and all of those high flying moves? But I don’t think the hardest thing about dancing has anything to do with technique, and has everything to do with life. For me, the hardest thing about dancing is being vulnerable.

Sure, many of us go to dances just to let loose and have a good time. We aren’t always looking for something deep and meaningful. For some people, dancing is an escape. But for me, the best part of dancing happens when I let my guard down, when I feel safe with my partner, when my partner feels safe with me and lets her guard down, too. In those music-wrapped moments, I have always found my profoundest dancing experiences. Those are the moments when the true joy of the heart can be released and the true sorrow of a soul can be exposed.

For me, that willingness to show up with everything that’s going on in my life, everything that I’ve buried inside, tucked away, locked up, and hidden from the world…that’s the hardest thing to do in dancing. But its transformative. When the heart is released, a kick can be a burst of joy or an act of anger. A turn can be a tender moment or a bit of heartbreak. I get that it isn’t for everybody. Its hard. Its risky. Hell, you may even just hear it as my pretentious ramblings on my sense of expression and artistry in dance. But for me, its the hard thing that makes it most worth while.

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Filed under Aesthetics, C-Jam

On Partnership

On October 13th, Susanne and I will celebrate our 5th anniversary, an event that has given me cause to reflect on my marriage and on the nature of partnership. Susanne and I try to be very honest that ours is not a perfect marriage, that we struggle and have conflict, and that we work really damn hard at our relationship. To be honest, we’ve had a couple of really rough years with a lot of hurt feelings, but we both wanted this relationship to work so bad that we put all our efforts into realizing our dreams. Now, I can say that, while not every day is perfect, we are living that dream together. And even on the days when imperfect rears its head, we live into our dream together. All of these times, good and bad, have enlightened me about the nature of partnerships of both the romantic and dance variety. As a tribute to my wife, here is some of the wisdom and insight I have gleaned from my five years with this wonderful woman:

1) See the best in your partner, even when they are at their worst.When I first met Susanne, I was in a very raw place; not exactly at my best. For whatever reason, she saw something worth investing in, saw the best in me. I try to live up to that vision, to be the best self that I find reflected in her eyes. And in return, I offer her my eyes through which to view her best self. Even in our darkest moments, I have never doubted how amazing she is.

2) Lead by example; change yourself and invite your partner to join you. Continue reading

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Walking in Memphis

This past summer, Susanne and I spent a week of vacation in Memphis enjoying the sights, sounds, and barbecue. We left with many great memories: Beale St., Stax Records, Sun Studios, Ground Zero Blues Club, the Delta Blues Museum, Muddy Waters house, the plantation where Pinetop Perkins drove a tractor. We ate barbecue five of the eight days we spent there, and soul food on one of the other days. Our lovely dancer friends, Michael Quisao and Annabel Truesdell, took us to a couple of great little local joints, including Di Anne Price’s “court” and a gods-honest Memphis juke-joint. We are both so thankful to them for the time and treasures of Memphis they shared with us.

For me, visiting Memphis was transformative. I feel as though I have a much more visceral understanding of the blues and of rock and roll. I know more deeply the roots of decades of our musical heritage. Living in Baltimore, I am no stranger to poverty. I’m not blindly walled off into little white-picket fenced plots of suburbia. I see it around me, and I see it often. But the poverty I see and experience here is nothing compared to the swaths of empty store fronts nestled in between vast fields along the Mississippi delta. I’ve often heard the blues talked about as a catharsis of the soul, a release of the worries of the day. There on the banks of the Mississippi, I felt but a drop of the depths of oppression, poverty, and struggle that the blues emerged from. Blues isn’t just a catharsis. It is a triumph of the human spirit; to be lifted so high from such lows.

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