One thing that I have been thinking about this week while practicing is what happens on those days when you just don’t have it. I don’t mean days when you lack motivation. That is one thing, of course, but I have found that that is something you just have to fight through. I am talking about the days when you just don’t have it in the sense that you just can’t play well. When you can’t do what you usually do. When everything is forced and it all comes out bad.
I had a few days like that this week and I started to think about them.
What is going on when this happens?
What does it mean that it is happening?
How can I reduce the chances of this happening?
What should I do when I feel this happening?
With these questions on my mind, I started looking into skill acquisition to see if I could find some answers. One interesting article I found came from a sports science site called Humankinetics.com. It outlines the three stages of motor learning- Cognitive, Associative, and Autonomous. Most of the time we spend practicing is spent between the associative and the autonomous. The article explains the associative stage as “is transforming what to do into how to do.” So I might know from the sheet music that I need to play a G chord, but now I need to learn the motor pattern that makes that happen at the moment it needs to happen. Now, making a simple G chord is pretty easy for me at this point, so that particular example is closer to the autonomous level of learning, where motor skills can be reproduced automatically, leaving room for your mind to think about other things. To really play anything, we need to push most of the skills into the autonomous level.
Not being a cognitive scientist, I can only make a few guess at what the underlying causes of these off-days might be, but based on a simple understanding of these learning stages, I think the problem lies in the fact that there is no clear line between associative and autonomous for the person doing the learning. After the fact, those might be distinct categorizations, but if you are playing music, especially new, challenging music, you are going to spend the majority of your time in the border between the free-flowing autonomous actions and the more deliberate associative steps needed to get there.
It then becomes easy to mistake where you are at any given time. Some of the things that you might have assumed were locking into an autonomous process are actually not there yet. Throw in additional distractions, poor sleep or some other stressor and those not-quite-autonomous actions need more deliberate attention than they did yesterday. It feels like you “don’t have it” because your grip on the skill is less firm than it seems. Maybe you can do something autonomously in perfect conditions, but that is not the end of the road.
I think I can take away from this two important points. First, if you feel like you “don’t have it” any given day, you never “had it,” at the level you need it to be at. Second, when this happens, the best thing to do is to take note of it and take a step back and re-cement the basics behind what you are struggling with.