Monday, November 14, 2016

Book Review - Practicing for Artistic Success by Burton Kaplan (Part One)

One day this past summer I was surfing my Facebook feed and saw an intriguing post from Manny Laureano. Manny is the Principal Trumpet with the Minnesota Orchestra, and Co-Artistic Director and Conductor of the Minnesota Youth Symphonies Orchestra. He also was on the faculty of the National Orchestral Institute many years ago when I was a fellow there. He is a musician, music educator, and human for whom I have the utmost respect.

His post on Facebook that morning talked about a workshop he was going to be participating in: A "Practice Marathon Retreat" for brass players, at the Magic Mountain Music Farm in upstate New York. I did some reading about the retreat, Magic Mountain, and the founder and co-presenter of the workshop, Burton Kaplan. I really wanted to attend the retreat in person, but I had a performance booked that week that I absolutely could not back out of, so I did some research and found the next best thing... the book "Practicing for Artistic Success," by Burton Kaplan.

This book is not an easy read. It is densely packed with a huge amount of usable information

The book is fairly short - only about 100 pages - but it is VERY densely packed with information. It is not a quick read. I spent a good part of the summer reading through the entire book to get a basic understanding of what it was about, but I feel this is one of those books that I'm going to need to read several times, carefully, taking notes, and in small chunks in order to extract the full value of information within.

This is an excellent book, and it is absolutely chock-full of truly valuable and actionable practice advice. But be prepared, Kaplan writes in a fairly academic style. I find myself reading and re-reading sentences and paragraphs to parse their meaning.

Several times during my first reading of the book I would find myself at the end of a section with no memory of what I had just read. This is the kind of prose that invites your mind to go off on a tangent of it's own while your eyes continue to scan the printed page.

I don't consider this to be a serious flaw in the writing. If you're reading a book of this nature, it is understood that you're serious about the subject and are willing to put some effort in. Kaplan has done his best to pack an enormous amount of info in a small space, and he's done a good job!

Structure of the Book

The book is written in two main parts. Part One, "How to Get More for Your Effort," is the main overview, while the second part, "Practice Strategies for All Instruments" can be though of more as a troubleshooting guide. Having trouble with intonation? Check out chapter 12: "Strategies for Improving Intonation" - Looking for help with memorization, or learning fast passages? There are chapters for each of those, and many others, plus a catch-all "Strategies for Most Occasions" to help you create your own practice strategies. I haven't read each strategy in depth yet, so I'll leave the specifics for future installments of this review.

How to Get More for Your Effort

The first four chapters of Practicing for Artistic Success are primarily focused on bringing us up to speed with Kaplan's philosophy of practicing.

In the first two chapters, Kaplan discusses what actually is practice? What activities count as practice, and which ones don't? I was pleased to read that he counts reflection and planning as essential components of practice. He goes on to outline four different ways to approach using the book (including just reading it top to bottom :-)  ).

One of the more interesting parts of the "theory" portion of the book is a list of practicing myths. Some of the myths Kaplan tackles are "Practice Slowly," "Repeat a Lot," and "Use a Metronome." As you read in more detail, the myths turn out to be more nuanced than they might appear at first glance. For example, Kaplan does not tell us we should avoid practicing slowly! Instead, he gives advice on when to practice slowly, and how slow is too slow.

The Basic Work Process

I have to be honest here. Even though I do find theory and philosophy of practicing interesting, that's not why I ultimately bought this book. I want concrete advice I can USE to improve my practice. From that perspective, chapter 5 is where we finally hit pay-dirt. Here's what Kaplan says at the beginning of the chapter:
To improve your mastery of a particular musical or technical event efficiently, you must guide your practice through a series of specific, practical steps. I call these steps the Basic Work Process. There are four sequential techniques in the Basic Work Process: the Technique of Observation, the Technique of Success at Any Cost, the Technique of Intimacy, and the Technique of the First Try.
I've read through the chapter of the Basic Work Process several times now, and I have to say it looks very good. Kaplan is attempting to take a Very Complicated Process (practicing music) and codify it into a set of instructions, a process, that can be applied to any practice session. This is much harder than it sounds (and it doesn't exactly sound easy!). There are so many decisions that we make every second while we're practicing. So many variables, so many unknowns. The Basic Work Process is about the best written description of a practice process I've seen to date.

The Bottom Line

This is a great book. I highly recommend it for anyone who is very serious about their music, with the caveat that it is not the easiest read. You have to be able to handle college textbook style writing, which I know is not for everyone.

Does it Work?

As great as the book seems on a read-through, the only way to know if the information is good is to try it. This is why I have titled this blog post Part One of the book review. Beginning today I'm going to attempt integrating the Basic Work Process into my own practicing. I'll keep track of everything I do in the Structured Practice Method. I anticipate spending a good solid month doing this before I can write Part Two and share my results. If it seems like I need more time than that, I'll write an update post to keep you informed of how I'm doing.

Meanwhile, if you've read Kaplan's book and have your own thoughts, or if you have questions right now, feel free to post in the comments!

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