Here's what happened.
So I'm at home for the summer after my junior year of college. I'm working a little bit, practicing my horn (trombone) a little bit, typical low-key summer. I decide to shoot some hoops on my badly rusted childhood basketball goal. I step up to the free throw line... brick. I run get the ball and try again. Brick. I try a few more shots... mostly bricks.
Wow, I didn't remember how to shoot the ball. So I decided to try an experiment. What if I work on shooting the basketball as methodically as I practice my instrument? I was at home for the summer, so I had plenty of time... and I tried it. The most awesome part is that it worked. I got really good at shooting the ball.
Method to the Madness
I decided to be systematic about my approach to shooting the basketball. Just like practicing the trombone, I started with something I knew I could do every time. For playing my horn, its a nice concert F in the middle of the horn. For shooting a basketball, it's standing two feet in front of the goal. When warming up on my trombone, I don't move onward until I'm solid on the easy stuff.. then I start to stretch the range and technique. I did the same systematic approach on the court. And it worked beautifully.
So let's talk about the brain for a second. All skill based activities deal with synaptic connections in the brain (aka muscle memory). Once you perform a new technique, your brain creates a synapse, or pathway. When you repeat, it reinforces that synapse. It's kind of like if you walk over the same patch of grass every day for a few weeks.. the path is nothing at first, but eventually it becomes ingrained. Now, if you took a slightly different path each time, the grass wouldn't be as affected. So it is important to make sure it is exactly the same every time. I figured out how to coordinate my body to make the shot. Then I repeated the motion over and over and over and over. You get the idea. I was slow and methodical. If I missed a shot, I would examine the technique. Then I would shoot the ball a hundred more times (sometimes literally).
Here's the system I set up (from what I can remember of it):
Story on the side!
So my basketball shooting got really good! It lasted too. Well into the next school year. I would go to the basketball courts and continue my shooting practice from time to time. One time a bunch of athletes came out to play a game. I'm pretty sure they were football players and they were huge. They couldn't really kick me off the court, so I was invited to play. They were way better at ball handling than I was. They were also in better shape. Which is why it was so darn fun to NOT miss my shots when I got the ball. Especially the 3 pointers. There's nothing like a skinny little trombone player holding his own with some real-deal athletes. I had the time of my life.
Complicated Stuff - The Mental Game
Now it's time to get into the other part of the method that's not so straight-forward. There's been numerous books and articles written about this method in every field. This part is the mental game you have to play in order to fine-tune a skill. I call it "zooming out." To me, I mentally zoom out of the situation and let my physical motion go on auto pilot. When I was shooting my bazillion shots, I would zoom out further on each repetition. As a musician, I like to focus on my breathing. It brings me the most calm (especially to my mind). Here's my process:
In my first few years of teaching, I was afforded the opportunity to put this theory to practice.
Some thoughts on teaching rhythm...
I was creating some extra counting resources and thought I'd muse a bit on how I like to do things. Specifically, I was working my new set of progressive rhythmic reading (Count. Play. Level Up.). I even found a nice old-school "video game" font to use. You can find the sets in the Sight-Reading Section. I've broken it into a few strategies that I've always found to work. So here goes..
Vocalising the Counts
I've always found it beneficial to make the students count out loud when first working on an exercise. This forces the students to think numbers (connecting numbers to beats) as they count. It also helps them keep their eyes on the correct beat. At first, we just count. Students should imitate the music with their voice as much as possible. For example, if you have a whole note, have them connect the numbers with their voice-OOOOOONE - TWOOOOOO - THREEEEEEEE - FOOOOOOOUR. My thought is that if you can't say the counts correctly (especially in easier music), you probably can't play it correctly.
In the end...
The musings of a composer that also band directs!! ... or maybe it's the other way around..