It is the most normal thing in the world for top athletes: a personal training schedule drawn up by specialists and a coach who helps them through it as well as possible. Top musicians, on the other hand, equally willing to sacrifice good and blood, have to invent the wheel themselves. Where top sport relies on decades of scientific research, very old romantic ideas such as self-sacrifice and rehearsing until you drop are still very much alive in the music world, Beorn Nijenhuis (36) and James Oesi (31) conclude in a study that they present on Saturday in the Muziekgebouw in Amsterdam.
Eighteen months ago, double bass player Oesi decided to record Bach’s cello suites. Not a piece of cake, and certainly not on double bass. Normally he studies new repertoire in sparse spare hours, but now he wanted to do it differently. He released himself for six months. But doubt soon arose: how do I make the most of that time? What if I am not there after six months?
“I have received one training schedule as a teenager,” says Oesi. “Violinist Itzhak Perlman taught me to study for four hours. Every 50 minutes, then a 10-minute break. Because, he said, it was based on research. I kept that up for three hours. The fourth never worked. ” Yet Oesi got stuck in this scheme. “Survey said it was best, didn’t it?”
Completely wrong, saw Beorn Nijenhuis, who after his skating career immersed himself in neuroscience at the universities of Utrecht and Groningen. Based on diaries and stress measurements that Oesi sent him every morning, he adjusted the rehearsal schedule. He adjusted the schedule: 45 minutes of study, 15 minutes of break. A tiny difference, but a world of difference. Oesi, still amazed: “It worked so much nicer.” Studying haphazardly had also ended. Not a vague ideal, Nijenhuis wanted to see concrete goals. “This week this gigue, that rerun and work on phrases.” Those goals were strategically distributed among the rehearsal blocks. “The toughest things you have to do in the morning,” learned Oesi. “But not the first. I never realized that everything requires a different kind of concentration. And if something didn’t work, I continued to rehearse until late at night. ” It almost never got better.
Because, in spite of hours of extra practice, such a high level will improve without a well-thought out training schedule, at most with mouse steps, they have long known in the sports world. Nijenhuis: „99 percent succeed, but that 1 percent, that last perfectionist step to a higher level, many musicians fail. They only see the 1 percent and are frustrated that everything is going wrong. ”
Save novelty? During rest
One of Nijenhuis’s most helpful mantras for Oesi’s: the actual learning, recording and storing of novelties in the brain, does not happen during exercise, but during rest. An insight that provided a personal paradigm shift in Oesi’s musician. “Resting on the couch used to be waiting and stressing because I didn’t do anything ‘useful’. It sounds so obvious now that it is eating that energy, but I was amazed when Beorn said that. ” Nijenhuis: “No, it is not that obvious. We all know the feeling that you should actually do something. That’s a guilt feeling, and the only solution is difficult. You have to give yourself permission to rest. ”
Oesi: “The only thing that endlessly rehearsing in the musician culture gives you is prestige. The pained musician is a good musician. But at the same time I don’t know anyone who listens to their own CD recordings. We ourselves are dissatisfied, but yes, ‘people’ like it, ‘so bring it out anyway’. ” Oesi has overcome this dissatisfaction thanks to Nijenhuis. Seeing the 99 percent, making that last percent more concrete and learning to trust the training schedules made giant leaps out of the mouse steps.
In the meantime, Nijenhuis has started to sort out all the data that Oesi’s rehearsals and stress measurements have yielded. He does not yet dare to think of a ‘Beorn Nijenhuis method’ for musicians, but he has more than enough for a first scientific paper.
James Oesi will be recording Bach’s six cello suites next month. Saturday he presents with Beorn Nijenhuis the research results during a concert in the Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ in Amsterdam.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on July 30, 2020
A version of this article also appeared in nrc.next dated July 30, 2020