So this week one of the many pieces of advice that my son got from his cello teacher, the legendary Mr. Howard, was from the cellist Jian Wang on the importance of slow practice. Mr. Howard shared an article in which Wang talks about watching a National Geographic documentary about gorillas. He realized that they are “superb machines, completely unconscious of the mechanics of movement. They are so fluid and relaxed.”
This inspired him: “At that moment I had an epiphany about my playing. My goal became to be completely natural and instinctive in the use of both my hands [emphasis mine].” Wang says that he achieves this through practicing scales slowly, “so that my hands form the correct shape and learn where to go by themselves. ” This is done without a metronome, “because I want to develop control of rhythm within my body.”
Years ago when I was doing a lot of music, I often heard the adage: “Practice slow to play fast.” I’m hoping that there’s a skating equivalent that will pay off in the future. Practicing “slow” is not the same as skating slowly. I’ve been working hard on that deep-ankle-push and getting a good bend into the new edge so that I can achieve better speed and flow on the ice. So I am covering more ice and traveling at a higher velocity.
But what is slower is what many might see as progress: mastery of new skills, adding harder moves. I sometimes get a bit concerned over how long it’s been since I’ve worked hard on compulsory dances, testing, or anything that looks to some like a recognizable goal. I have been putting quite a bit of time into the skating equivalent of scales. Lots of edges, and my regular work on turns of various kinds. But some days I get on the ice, get started on those edges and power pulls and progressives, and the next thing you know it’s 45 minutes later and I haven’t even done a single three turn.
Does this mean I am doomed to a future of endless but never-good-enough stroking? No more hopes of testing? I guess the answer’s up to me. I keep thinking that I’ll start working on the compulsories again, but then I’ll figure out something really basic that I still need to improve: using more ankle bend, allowing the knees to come forward, getting my upper body in the right place.
I’m finding so many things about these basics that are not yet completely natural and instinctive, not even close. One of my recent discoveries is how little I have been doing with my feet and ankles to really shape an edge. This is especially true on back inside edges, especially after turns. I’ve been doing the “push and pray” thing, in which I try to stack up everything, rather than actively engaging my feet and ankles through and after the turn.
I can still get through a couple of social patterns of different dances with no problem, but too often I find myself reverting to my old ways. Wang talks about the problems of “talented kids who play pieces that are too difficult”:
They hide their deficiencies in a technical way by twisting the music. The music should not be changed because of an inadequate technique. This will always catch up with you.
Whoa, that could be me. I feel like this past year+ has been spent undoing a twisted body and a twisted technique that has finally caught up with me.
So with that in mind, for now I’m keeping a large part of each practice devoted to basics. The goal is to make what I do seem easy: movement that is efficient, balanced, and controlled. (This doesn’t mean always being perfectly over my skates; gravity is such that skating makes use of falling. I’m only beginning to understand this part.)
At the same time, I’m going to give some attention to developing some other goals. Will report back!