The Music Model of Practice

West Coast Swing Online Grab Bag

This post is the first in a three-part series on the main three models for practice. These three models, which are based on the relationship between the practice material and the actual performance of the skill, are each useful in different contexts. The focus of this post will be the music model.

In a traditional musical performance, the musician knows exactly what will be expected on stage because the score is written down and shown to the musician in advance. In this scenario, what separates an okay musician from an exceptional musician is simply the quality of the performance itself.

To produce the highest quality performance possible, the musician will practice individual components of the music until they are as good as possible. By continually refining the parts of the performance that need the most work, the musician is prepared to perform those elements at a high level in the actual concert.

Because the exact performance situation is known in advance, the musician can insist on a 100% rate of successful performance. Short of a catastrophe like an oboist breaking her reed, the performance situation presents no unanticipated demands, and hence the musician can rehearse until there is no possibility of failure.

This model of performance corresponds with the performance of a routine in west coast swing, and so it is no surprise that a similar practice strategy is employed by the best routine dancers. Couples (or teams) that perform routines spend relatively little time dancing straight through the routine; most of their practice is spent repeating small sections while focusing on a particular element, such as spacing or arm styling. There are (apocryphal?) stories of Jordan and Tatiana spending eight hours in the studio in order to figure out 16 beats of music. Is it any wonder, with that level of focus, that there are no wasted beats in their routines?

In addition to routines, there are some strictly swing scenarios in which the music model applies. If you and your partner have a pre-determined sequence of footwork out of a particular variation or have a move that you have developed as a partnership, that component of the dance can be practiced in the same way as a musical performance. If you watch Jordan and Tatiana do a strictly demo, you should recognize many of their moves from past routines. As you watch them execute those moves, pay particular attention to how they get into and out of those moves. Almost every time, the entrance and the exit are the same; indeed, the entrance is how they communicate to each other which move is coming next, and by having a fixed exit, they are able to get back into the dance seamlessly.

Finally, at a fundamental level the core patterns of west coast swing are performances that can be rehearsed under this model. There is a saying: beginner dancers practice intermediate patterns, intermediate dancers practice advanced patterns, and advanced dancers practice their basics. What advanced dancers have learned is that, if they perfect the technique in the basic patterns, the technique will work its ways into higher-level patterns. West coast swing basics—with all their technical nuance—can therefore be practiced under this model as well, and in fact pro dancers spend a great deal of time refining their basics as a defense against developing sloppy habits.

Keys to the Music Model of Practice

  • The exact performance situation is known in advance
  • Practice focuses on small elements of the performance until they can consistently be performed flawlessly
  • Usually used for routines, but can also be used (in part) for strictly swing scenarios
  • Can be applied to basic patterns (in combination with the sports model; see the upcoming part 3 for more details!).
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