Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Acute and Chronic Practicing

I’d like to talk a little bit about acute practicing versus chronic practicing. Typically we associate these terms with diseases, but they have more straightforward definitions as well. Acute means merely short term or short period. And chronic just means ongoing or an extended period.

Now that we’ve established an understanding of these terms, here's how they apply to practice. Acute practicing as I understand it is goal-oriented and time-specific. For example, practicing your scales from noon - 1:00 PM. Or working on a particular piece from 4:00 PM - 5:00pm. This is how we typically approach it. Chronic practicing is not necessarily goal oriented (but could be) nor time specific. Chronic practicing could be passively hearing those skills while we do other things. Or rehearsing that piece we were working on in our head all throughout the day, long after we’ve put our instruments away. We’ve all heard horn players humming or whistling ideas that they’re working on, almost on a subconscious level. The same can be said for drummers who are always tapping out grooves and rhythms, no matter how annoying to those around them.

These are all classic examples of chronic practicing.

In medicine, chronic diseases are often much more deadly than acute ones because one, you don’t know have it until it starts to aggressively attack your body or immune system; and two, it affects a larger area of your body, perhaps your immune system as a whole. Chronic practicing is similar in that its effects can run much broader, and the information and skills get absorbed more deeply and tend to be more long-lasting.

Branford Marsalis often talks about a chronic practicing approach to transcribing (this is my assessment, not his), where the first step is to listen to a solo a million times, then when he gets it in his ear solid enough where he’s able to sing every note, then he transcribes it. This certainly differs from the acute practicing method where you pull out the manuscript paper and write it down, let's say from 1:30 PM - 3:30 PM--a methodology I often employ. It's important to recognize that both approaches have their advantages.

I do something similar when I’m confronted with something rhythmically challenging. Before attempting to play it on my instrument, I spend a week or so singing it, tapping it out, humming it, anything to get it embedded into my system.

One might conclude that acute practicing is done with one’s instrument and chronic practicing is done without. In many instances this is true, but certainly not exclusive. More simply stated: Acute practicing as the method for getting it under your fingers and chronic practicing as how you get it into your system.

As I often say, this is not hard science, but a mere softer way of learning.

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