Golden Rule #2 of Practicing: You must understand the problem before you can fix the problem.
Mindfulness, our old friend! We meet again. We cannot fix problems if we are not aware that they are happening, as discussed last time. This relies on the development of a discerning ear, which is best guided by studying with a great teacher, one who will lovingly bug students about every little problem.
Once we begin to perceive problems, however, we must deepen our awareness. Where exactly is the problem? What exactly is the problem? Do we know what might be causing the problem? Questions like these lead us to understand the issues encapsulated by problems. After all, many problems we hear are just symptoms of greater, underlying problems. "Cracked note? Well, you're going to keep cracking notes until we get that air support in order!" (This could lead me down one of my favorite rabbit holes, the importance of daily fundamentals, but I'll choose not to digress just now.)
We must therefore seriously examine a problem before it can be solved, a fact that escapes many students in their rush to jump in and make improvements. Neglecting such examination frequently results in misdirected effort and, consequently, misspent time, as we haphazardly try out solutions to problems we do not fully understand. In these instances, if a worthy solution is found, it is thanks to luck, rather than wisdom or skill, and there is no guarantee that the problem won't recur. This is precisely why we should make friends with our mistakes, as I discuss in The Scientific Method of Practicing: the better we understand our problems, the more likely it is we can fix them for good.
This brings us to:
Golden Rule #3 of Practicing: Always practice the smallest amount you can to fix a problem.
Years of using the questions above to analyze playing problems has led me to this truth: 90% of problems (a conservative estimate) are rooted in the performance of 1-2 notes. Despite this, many students will play extended passages over and over again, hoping for improvement. Convincing students (including ourselves) to invest time and energy in the 1-2 notes that constitute the heart of a problem can be surprisingly difficult. Many feel as though the volume of work they have in front of them simply won't allow for the luxury of spending precious practice minutes on 1-2 notes at a time, a sentiment related to the previously described impulse to jump in and fix a problem before understanding it.
However, what the seasoned pros know is that small-scale practice is not a luxury; rather, it is exactly what creates lasting improvement. Once we have taken the necessary steps to fix a problem, we can plug those 1-2 notes back into the longer passage. If the problem is well and truly fixed, the passage will be smooth sailing, and much time that might have been spent hammering away at the whole passage ad infinitum will have been saved. If the problem persists, zoom back in, work through the problem again (perhaps using different strategies), then zoom back out to the passage. Such back-and-forth is a necessity in effective practicing. To put it another way, we can't take in the beauty of the forest if each tree isn't in its place. Given this, some rewording might be in order: "To fix a problem, always practice the smallest amount you can."
If you want to read stuff like this regularly, subscribe to Dr. Tim's Teaching Tips on the right! I promise you'll only be emailed with new blog posts, never spam. You can also add the blog to your RSS feed.
Finally, if you like this post, then you'll love The Scientific Method of Practicing, where the underlying information is covered in detail. Head over to the publications page to pick up a copy.