The Problem-Solving Practice Process

One of my hobbies is computer programming.  One of the things I love about programming is the problem-solving process involved with making a program work correctly.  I started trying to figure out programming in High School and finally made a working game about 2-3 years later.  Each time I would go through the debugging process, I could eventually figure out something that would make the program work a little better.  Sometimes it was an easy fix such as to change where I put certain bits of code.  Sometimes it would take longer, completely reworking the code.  But even if it was frustrating, it was very logical, and if I kept at it I could come up with a solution.

I have recently started trying to incorporate that logical approach into my own playing.  I realized that I treated playing music more as an artist:  thinking of it as a magical thing when I got a piece learned and was able to perform it well.  In teaching music, I've been finding that this cannot be the case:  students don't need magic, they need an order and a structure that can help them get to where they need to be.

While we want to keep the magic and the enjoyment of the music, we as musicians need an ordered structured way to achieve results when playing music.  For this, I started to take the logical approach to creating a program and to see how that can apply to myself and to my students in not only music but in almost every area of life.  I've called this the "Problem-Solving Practice Process."  While I call it a "Practice" process, it really is just a life process.  It's a way of thinking about our problems, trying to eliminate some of the negative judgment for not succeeding right away, and refining our solutions until we become more efficient and more capable with how we overcome the challenges we face.

In this process, we ask ourselves:  what is our ultimate goal?  This is non-specific.  As musicians, sometimes it may be:  "I want to play a piece well."

Once we have established our over-arching goal, we set sub-goals.  This is a little more specific.  Let's say measure 10-14 in a piece.  Within this goal, we might establish even more sub-goals, such as saying the arpeggio in measure 12.  Either way, we get more and more specific.

Next, we ask ourselves:  what are the impediments that are keeping us from reaching this goal.  This is an important question to ask, because if there wasn't something keeping us from reaching our goal, we'd be doing it already.  This means something is stopping us from achieving this goal.  We brainstorm and come up with a list of possible impediments.

Next, for each of these impediments, we come up with solutions that help us overcome these problems so that we can achieve the sub-goals, which helps us with our over-arching goals.

Once we have some possible solutions, it's time to implement them.  We try them out and see if they are working.  This can be tricky since we may not see immediate success with them.  This is where I came up with three questions to ask ourselves:

1) Is it bringing me closer to my goal?
If a solution is not actually bringing us closer to the goal for which we made it, then why do it?  We sometimes do this in our practice:  keep playing it and keep playing it, but making no progress because it's too fast, it's not a small enough section to manage, etc.  If it's not working, we need to come up with a new solution.

2) Is it practical?
Is the solution we created something we can reasonably do?  Of course we would learn a piece if we spent 6 hours everyday working on it, but do we have that time?  Would we even want to?  At this point, it may need to be that we refine our solutions or add new solutions to create something more practical.  Even if our solution isn't as absurd as that much time, it may be something like: play these 2 notes for 30 minutes every day.  It may bring you closer to your goal, but is it something you can reasonably do?

3) Is it efficient?
This brings me to our last question:  is this an efficient solution?  30 minutes every day is not only not practical, but it is not efficient.  Sometimes the solution ends up being as simple as:  "Let me leave myself a reminder to do this.  I'll write something above it."  If this solves the problem, why spend the 30 minutes every day on those 2 notes when you can spend less than 10 seconds leaving a note?

These three questions can help us focus on what is going to help us achieve our goals in the most efficient way possible.  This means we'll learn and grow faster at the pieces we're learning and as musicians.

This whole process also helps eliminate some of the judgement involved in playing music.  I find myself getting down for not being able to play a piece right away.  However, when I recognize that there's something keeping me from playing it, I can remove self-judgement and get to work on it, creating solutions that address the underlying issues.

With this, I find there are 2 types of solutions:  ones that address the immediate issues, and ones that address the technique.  There may be quick fixes in a piece, like learning a fingering that's a little more unique, and these require more short-term solutions.  However, if there is a technically difficult passage that uses a unique bowing pattern, perhaps I should consider getting better at that bowing pattern.  Or maybe there's a bowing style like spiccato that I need to use extensively, but I can't play spiccato at the tempo as comfortably yet.  These are long-term solutions that require some extra work.  I think of this like building a programming library.  Immediately, we may not see the success, but once we have the library built, it speeds our progress and makes everything easier because we have this library to use.

In a similar way, we sometimes need to work on technique building solutions to make all of the hard work we're doing less hard long-term because our basic skills are so much better.  Those everyday skills are something we don't need to spend time on because we have done them so much, we don't have to think about them.  This is where technique building comes in:  scales, arpeggios, etudes, etc.  However, we may come up with other strategies in addition to these.  Playing in high passages requires good intonation, which we can build with scales, but also by playing familiar songs in different octaves or in higher positions.  Rhythms in a piece may present us problems, and we can play the passages with a metronome, but what if we mixed it up by playing a particularly hard rhythm in a scale?

There are so many possible solutions in practicing that it can seem like magic when we finally get it.  It's beautiful and awesome, but it requires a wizard or magician to replicate.

This process is not limited to music:  it's exactly how I think through a programming problem, and I realized is how we can think through any problem.  I'll share two examples.  The first is a musical one.

I was preparing to play in a performance of Messiah back in April.  We had gotten the music near January and had one rehearsal to put it all together the day before the concert.  I hadn't played in a more professional orchestra in many years, and the last performance I did was on the violin.  I knew there were two major obstacles I was going to face:
1) I was not used to playing on my viola for 2 hours for a performance, let alone 5 hours of rehearsal.  This meant, I needed to work out a way to help my back.  So, I though about it and came up with two solutions.  One was to start warming up my back before playing by stretching and a few push-ups.  The other was to start building up the endurance.  So I started this a few weeks before the performance.  While I was tired and my back worn out after the rehearsals and performance, it wasn't as bad as a I was expecting.
2) Messiah is intricate, and I hadn't played something with a group like this for a long time.  My solution?  Play it with a group.  I pulled out the recording I had been listening to and played along with it, running through the whole performance in concert order both to work out my back and to see how everything fit with everyone else.  I then focused in on the hardest songs to put together so that I had felt what playing it with a group would feel like.
Both of these solutions helped make for a more successful and a more fun overall experience with this performance, with a lot more efficiency than I was used to.

The other example of how I used this process was while driving.  I was trying to find ways to reduce my stress, and I realized that driving on the freeway was the biggest source of stress.
And what was the biggest source of the stress while driving?  Other drivers.  I can't control them, but I could control what I did.  A student suggested I take a different route.  The other route I could take would add an extra hour to my already hour and a half long commute, so this solutions wasn't going to be practical or efficient.
I realized then that I could control how I felt about others.  I decided every time I saw a "left-lane-loafer," as my brother calls them,  I would work on forgiving them by remembering I'm imperfect too.  And it helped:  my stress level went down, and I was happier.

I would encourage you to think about this process, as it can help in your music, in your academics, and throughout your life.


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