The Woodshed: Do’s and Don’ts

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MusicalityWoodshedding (noun) a centuries old practice technique designed to produce correct and consistent performance through relentless repetition.

Sound like fun? Not likely.

The legendary jazz saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker is often cited as a musician who owed his success to the woodshed.  As Parker told the story, after some embarrassing performances as a young musician, he began “woodshedding” eleven to fifteen hours a day.  As a result, a frustrated horn player became a budding jazz genius.

“Woodshed practice” produces good results with this simple formula, which I call the Woodshed Theorem:

Repetition x Endurance (physical and mental)
Time

Repetition times Endurance over Time equals Correct and Consistent Performance

The more repetition you do, and the longer you can stand it (that’s the endurance part), the better your results.

All we musicians know that repetition is a necessary part of learning our craft. That’s why we practice.  And it is certainly true that the more we practice the better we get.  But” taking it to the woodshed” is not without its downside. Let’s look at the pros and cons.

There are some clear benefits to “woodshed” practice:

  • We gain familiarity with the music we want to learn.
  • We can iron out the tricky spots.
  • We gain more “experience points” in terms of mastery of our instrument.

There are some downsides:

  • The process is a lengthy one.  Results can take a long time to achieve.
  • Mental fatigue can set in, possibly leading to burnout.
  • The physical demands can lead to injury.

Do we need to abandon the woodshed? I don’t think so, but I would like to offer you these tips to keep you happy and healthy while you’re there:

Do…

  1. …make every repetition count. Don’t zone out; do quality work.
  2. …be aware of your body; take frequent breaks to relax and stretch.
  3. …choose spots to woodshed, not the entire piece.
  4. …get creative. Repetition doesn’t have to be mind-numbing.

Don’t…

  1. …expect overnight results. Be patient.
  2. …use this technique to “cram” practice.
  3. …make it the ONLY way you practice.
  4. …forget the law of diminishing returns.  Stop when you’re tired. That’s five minutes before you can’t take it anymore.

Do you have a personal “woodshed” story?

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  • Eric Allison

    It can drive the family right up the wall. They seem to tolerate a rotation of three spots, played seven iterations at a time, especially if they’re from different songs, or movements, that are in the same key. But that routine also helps me focus without falling into the trap of mindless repetition.

    When several similar phrases in a piece need serious woodsheding, they’re scheduled for one, of the two a week, practice sessions when I’m home alone.

    You’re absolutely right about it taking a while to achieve an acceptable result; and then there’s the necessary correct repetitions the muscles need to properly memorize the effect. After all that effort, I’ll hear it played another way and think “oh I want to do that,” and have to start all over again. Such is music.

    Reply

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