I recently saw the movie "Groundhog Day" (one of my favorites) for probably the 50th time. In the movie, Bill Murray plays a cynical, self - centered reporter who repeatedly wakes up to the same day over and over again encountering the same situations and people. Once he realizes what is happening, he first fights against the situation, then manipulates it, and then finally comes to embrace it. By the end of the movie, he has transformed himself - and by doing so, transforms his situation. Although it is a comedy, the spiritual and psychological ramifications of this message are potent.
In life, we cannot relive the same day repeatedly - but as musicians, we enter into the same musical situations repeatedly through the the art of repetition. Taking a phrase, a passage, or a full piece and playing it over and over again is absolutely necessary for memory, technique, understanding, endurance, listening, etc. However, the one aspect of repetition which is most often overlooked is how we feel when we repeat. By being conscious about how we want to feel during each repetition, we can progress much faster.
For example, a few days ago I taught someone who was having difficulty with a fast passage and was explaining to me how he had been "drilling and drilling this bit, but it doesn't seem to get any better". We checked fingering, preparation, etc. Everything seemed to be fine. I then asked him to play the passage for me a few times. Sure enough, each time he played it, I could tell that he was feeling like he couldn't do it. He kept repeating the situation with the same mindset - and therefore getting similar results.
I then asked him to take a little time, breathe, relax, sit up straight, and think about how it would feel to be fully confident when playing the passage. Feel confident and stay focused on that feeling while playing. Now we began to repeat again. The first few repeats were no different than before, but this time instead of reacting to the mistakes, I asked him to keep refocusing on the feeling of confidence before and during the passage. Sometimes I would just tell him to say "this is easy" and imagine what it would feel like to be a player who had that kind of belief. Each time he would make a mistake, we would reset the feeling of confidence and repeat again.
Now this might seem like fantasy, but after about 6 or 7 repeats, he began to play the passage more accurately and fluidly. His body started to relax, his concentration increased, and although we were focusing on simply getting the passage accurate, even his tone and rhythm improved. At times, he would slip back to the old way (mental habits are hard to break) but the feeling of confidence or ease has to be practiced like anything else for it to take root. Awareness is key here, because it's so easy to do and not feel. Feeling is often totally overlooked, but I'm finding that it has to be practiced hand in hand with doing. One of the best questions you can ask when you are practicing is "how am I feeling?" and then "how do I want to feel?". Observe this as often as you can when you are working and keep refocusing on the feelings you want - practice having them now.
As in "Groundhog Day", as we change how we feel towards a situation, that situation over time begins to change. By practicing the feelings we want when we play, we gradually change ourselves - which has to change our playing for the better. This is one of the most important aspects of effective practice.