MPE, SIOs, and MME
When I first became interested in Spanish guitar, one of the details that stood out to me most when I watched live performances was how easy top-level guitarists made it look. My erroneous conclusion was that they must have worked really hard at the beginning in order to develop their muscles, endurance, and precision enough so that they could play easily on stage. I had equated guitar practice with exercising or lifting weights and rationalized that I had to push myself hard in order to make significant progress. For my overzealous younger self, that meant LOTS of repetitions and practice (e.g., 5+ hours/day for 6 days/wk on average...for about 8 years). (*I do NOT recommend doing this at all!!)
The results, unsurprisingly, were not very good. I ended up with lots of injuries, plenty of mediocre performances, lots of frustration, and inexplicably inconsistent progress. It was only when I got seriously injured with carpal tunnel syndrome, and later with focal dystonia, that I completely changed my approach.
PART 1: MPE
The first change was to prioritize Minimal Physical Effort (MPE) for everything I did with the guitar. In general, this included 3 components: 1) minimal fretting pressure, 2) minimal right-hand tension and 3) minimal body tension. For my left hand, this meant pressing as lightly as possible with my fretting fingers & thumb so that if I pressed even a tiny bit less my notes would buzz. For my right hand, it meant using as little effort as possible so that if I used any less my fingers wouldn’t move correctly enough to get the tone or volume I desired. Finally, for my body, it meant making sure my shoulders, neck, back, jaw, arms, legs (etc.) were as relaxed as possible when playing.
For performances and performance practice everything above was good enough, but for improvement (i.e., strategic practice) I had to add one crucial tweak. I had to push myself only to the very beginning of my tension and/or error thresholds. This was where I would just barely begin feeling the tiniest bit of tension and/or where I started making mistakes. For me and most people, this usually occurs with tempo increases, so it was extremely important to increase the tempo to my threshold only after the previous tempo felt easy.
In order to accomplish this, movements needed to be slow at first — and I mean VERY slow. When I reached either threshold (error or tension) I would work on corrections using these exact steps:
Stop playing immediately.
Keep both hands in their error/tension positions to identify the exact problem & probable cause.
Come up with a solution.
Take both hands off the guitar & relax everything.
Test the solution with MPE.
Repeat (validate) the solution 3-6 times MAX until it felt easy at a slow tempo -OR- find another solution if the first solution didn’t work after 2 attempts.
In summary, these are the 4 general steps to keep in mind for MPE during deliberate practice:
Be able to play your challenge spot phrase VERY slowly with MPE so that it feels fairly easy.
Increase tempo only up to your threshold (i.e., where error or tension begin).
Correct using the 6 steps above.
Repeat for every challenging spot using interleaved practice.
PART 2: MME
The second change to my practice & performance was to make sure I was always using Maximum Mental Effort (MME). This meant paying more deliberate attention to 4 things: 1) MPE (above), 2) error correction, 3) expression, and 4) anxiety reduction.
In both performance and practice, I would constantly scan my body for unnecessary tension and eliminate or reduce it immediately. My goal was always to feel relaxed and comfortable. Little by little MPE started becoming a habit and was replacing my natural tendency to push hard. Playing started to feel easy and much more enjoyable!
With regard to errors, I would pay immediate attention to identifying and consciously correcting them in strategic practice as soon as they appeared. In performance & performance practice, on the other hand, I would pay virtually no attention to them at all which helped me get used to playing my pieces without stopping. Most importantly, I began thinking of errors as “SIOs” (Significant Improvement Opportunities) rather than as ego-defeating frustrations or judgmental suggestions about my musical ability or ability to learn — yes, I used to do that! 😲
That last point about SIOs has a lot to do with anxiety. Many of us beat ourselves up or get really frustrated for making errors — I used to do the same thing and it didn’t help. In fact, it made things worse. A better strategy is to give errors very little emotional importance and instead, regard them as necessary hurdles in our progress.
Errors are good! And if addressed correctly, they are considered “desirable difficulties” in the scientific literature on learning. We absolutely need to make errors in order to improve, but we can only improve if we remove our emotional attachment to them and correct them logically and efficiently (see MPE above). So...next time you make an error during practice, take a deep breath and smile. 😁 Then remind yourself that you just discovered an SIO!
The last MME thing I did was to boost my attention to musical expression. By doing this I made very deliberate efforts to play and practice with interesting, experimental, and desirable tone, dynamic shape, tempo expression & embellishments. I started to play and practice by really listening to, and submerging myself in the sound of every note and chord I played. I did this not from an obsessive perspective but from one of enjoyment. This revolutionized both my practice & performance and turned them from difficult and sometimes unmotivating challenges to very desirable and motivating ones. In other words, practicing and playing became fun again!
In summary, be very conscious about practicing and performing with the appropriate MPE. Remember to think of errors during practice as SIOs and make sure to react to and solve them more logically than emotionally. Removing an emotional attachment to errors becomes especially important during performances and performance practice. During these two moments, make a concerted effort to brush off mistakes as if you had just stumbled briefly while walking -- no big deal. Keep going and shift your focus to your musical expression. Consider this: a perfect performance isn't one absent of errors, it's one full of expression.