One bit in the book that stuck with me is Adams’ concept of practicing. Scott relates the story about the three-year-old son of a friend. One day the boy was in Adams’ back yard totally absorbed in trying to hit a tennis ball amidst the frenzy other kids playing. He gave the young boy an impromptu lesson on how to properly hold a tennis racket, the basics of a good swing, and how to hit a ball. Then he set the boy loose only to watch him practice like a fiend for an extended period of time, far beyond what most three-year-olds are capable.
Adams goes on to write about how as a kid he spent entirely too much time mastering completely useless tasks such as spinning a basketball on his finger, juggling, and playing Ping-Pong with his left (off) hand. He concludes that some people are born with the inclination—not to mention the attention span and patience—to practice things while others find repetition of any kind to be an exquisite form of torture.
I must be in the former camp and I say this because of many years playing the trumpet, arguably the most frustrating instrument. Why so frustrating? Simply because the vibrating medium that produces sound is part of your physical body. Day to day, your ability to play well (or not) or even the potential to produce a decent sound on the instrument relies heavily on how good you physically feel. Thus on any given day, regardless of the level of skill and experience, one can have an epically, monumentally, ecumenically bad day on the horn. I know too well from personal experience. I’ve also seen top professional orchestral players take a dive. It’s not pretty.
Over the course of two decades-plus, part of every day for me was spent in a practice room or at home behind a closed door going through scales, exercises, and whatever pieces I was working on at the moment. Regardless of whatever I was practicing, the focus was always on producing a good sound. To point, the essence of being able to play any wind instrument—trumpet included—is one’s ability to consistently produce a good, even great, sound. With the trumpet, that means a consistent cycle of inhalation/exhalation in the most relaxed manner possible. In other words, and this is hugely counter intuitive, one works at being relaxed.
As for actual practicing, I remember playing through major trumpet orchestral excerpts countless times; the ballerina’s dance from Stravinsky’s Petrouschka, the opening solo from Mahler Symphony No. 5, double and triple tongue passages from Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade, and the lyrical solo from Strauss’ Don Juan. All literally thousands of times over many years in preparation for auditions either taken—or not.
In a recent TedEd video educator Annie Bosler and Don Greene, a Pasadena-based performance psychologist, explain how practicing a physical activity affects our brains. Bosler and Greene begin by noting that there are two kinds of neural tissue in our brains: gray matter and white matter. The gray matter processes sensory information directing signals and sensory stimuli to nerve cells. The white matter is mostly comprised of fatty tissue and nerve fibers. In order for us to produce movement of any kind, information has to travel from the gray matter down the spinal cord to our muscles through a chain of nerve fibers called axons.
Bosler and Greene then pose the following question: how does practicing or the repetition of an activity affect our brains? The answer has to do with the above-mentioned axons, which are neural pathways in the white matter. These axons are wrapped in a fatty substance called myelin and it’s this myelin that changes when we practice. Myelin is similar to insulation on electrical cables. It prevents energy loss from electrical signals that the brain uses and allows them to move more efficiently along neural pathways. Recent studies suggest that repetition of a physical motion increases the layers of the myelin sheathe that insulates the axons. More layers of myelin results in more insulation around the axon chains forming a super highway of sorts for information connecting your brain to your muscles. Many athletes and performers commonly attribute success to muscle memory. In fact, muscles themselves don’t really have memory. It could be that increased myelin insulation of axons gives athletes and performers their edge over the competition.
Bosler and Greene end the video by offering strategies for practicing. They note that effective practicing is always intensely focused and targets either content or weaknesses that lie at the edge of one’s current abilities. They further stress focusing on the task at hand while minimizing distractions such as smart phones, laptops, etc. They recommend starting out slowly or in slow motion. This because coordination and habits (either good or bad) are developed with repetition. From there, gradually increase the speed of quality repetitions while taking common allotted breaks. It’s common for top athletes and performers spend 50-60 hours a week on activities related to their craft. Many divide their daily practice into multiple sessions of shorter limited duration. Bosler and Greene’s final bit of advice is to practice visualization in vivid detail. Numerous sources suggest that once a physical pattern is established it can be reinforced by simply imagining it.
The best advice I’ve ever received on practicing was from the late Kenny Anderson, former principal trumpet in the New Mexico Symphony. Kenny was my first trumpet teacher from the time I was a sophomore in high school until the first two years of college. He was arguably the most strategic teacher I’ve ever worked with. Kenny spent more time sleuthing out the best way to practice a particular passage than actually practicing it. One of the first things he taught me was to break down anything I was working on into the smallest possible segments. The idea was that I needed to master each small segment before attempting to practice the entire passage. He also suggested that I think about what the passage would sound like if I could play it perfectly and then work backwards trying to figure out the sequence of what I would have to do to get it to that state of perfection. These two pieces of advice worked well then and still do now.
How did the thousands of hours of practicing the trumpet serve me later when it came to preparing for the MS exams, especially the tasting exam? The strategies of breaking down a large area of study into small segments and studying for brief, focused periods with planned breaks were two major themes I used over and over. But the tasting exam is different. Aside from actually tasting flights of six wines double blind to simulate the actual exam format, here are some suggested strategies for practicing tasting. All make use of the ideas above.
Use a Coravin
The Coravin is the best investment one can possibly make when preparing for the Advanced or Master’s tasting exam. Yes, it’s expensive (about $300), but a Coravin will allow you to taste cork-finished bottles over weeks or months without oxidation to the wine. Thus you’ll be able to purchase best examples of wine types (which tend to be expensive) and taste them repeatedly over an extended duration of time.
Learning the Grid
There are over 40 things on the deductive grid. Learn them in chunks of 3-5 things. Be able to explain them to anyone—especially someone who is not in wine. Remember, you don’t really know something until you can teach it or explain it. Break down the deductive grid into small segments that you can practice individually.
Primary Colors: practice visualizing the primary colors for white and red wines in your internal field. It’s vital to know the following colors and be able to easily differentiate between them:
- Whites: straw, yellow, and gold
- Reds: purple, ruby, and red
Cause and effect in regards to color: this equally important. Know the “why” behind the primary colors in white and red wines.
- Straw: possible youth, cool climate origin, and little if any oak usage
- Yellow: possible age or use of oak.
- Gold: oxidation in the form of bottle age, barrel age, or presence of botrytis.
- Purple: thicker-skinned grape, dark fruit dominant, potential elevated alcohol and tannin, youth.
- Ruby: continental climate, red and dark fruit, potential restrained level of alcohol and tannin.
- Garnet: extended barrel or bottle aging (or both), dried fruit and non-fruit condition, presence of earth.
Fault factor: learn the major wine faults. This one will require some investment as well. Purchase the Le Nez du Vin kit called “Les Défauts,” a kit containing small vials of the 12 most common wine faults. Keep the kit in your garage or at least away from your living space because it will inevitably—and quickly–become the vilest smelling thing ever. That’s a good thing. Work with one or two vials a week and develop a good memory for the faults du jour. Also read about what causes the fault and how it can be remedied in the winemaking process. Remember to always work with the kit either in your garage or outside. I’m not kidding about this one. I learned the hard way.
Signatures: I’ve written previously about the two dozen or so signatures that professional tasters have to “own.” First, source wines that really show each signature strongly. Using the Coravin, choose one or two of the wines and taste them daily if not multiple times a day. Practice until you can quickly recognize specific signatures even in trace amounts. Here’s a list to work from:
- Pyrazines: New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc (the Coravin is a no-go here because of screwcap), Sancerre, or Chinon
- Terpenes: Alsace Gewurztraminer or Salta Torrontès
- Rotundone: Grüner Veltliner for white, Syrah/Shiraz or Zinfandel for red
- Carbonic maceration: Beaujolais Village
- Stem inclusion: Beaujolais Village or traditional red Burgundy
- Botrytis in dry wine: Alsace Pinot Gris and certain bottlings of Vouvray
- Diacetyl: any number of California Chardonnays
- High volatile acidity: traditional styles of Barolo, Barbaresco, and Rioja
- TDN: Clare or Eden Valley Riesling
Tasting consists of confirming what’s been smelled in the wine and then calibrating the structural elements. But there are also several potential points of confusion. The Coravin will help here again in terms of repeated comparative tastings:
- Mineral/earth vs. no mineral/earth: Sancerre vs. California Chardonnay
- Oak vs. no oak: same pairing – Sancerre vs. California Chardonnay
- Phenolic bitterness vs. used oak: Alsace Gewurztraminer or Torrontès vs. Vouvray or other white with used wood
Structure: the easiest way to learning consistent calibration of structural elements is by comparative tasting using extremes:
- Alcohol: low vs. high: Moscato d’Asti or Mosel Riesling vs. high alcohol Chardonnay
- Acidity: low vs. high: Alsace Gewurztraminer vs. Clare or Eden Valley Riesling
- Tannin: low vs. high: Beaujolais Villages vs. Barolo
It’s important to spend time doing comparative tastings between easily confused grapes and wines. I like to call them the “evil dwarves.”
White grapes: Grüner Veltliner vs. Albariño, vs. dry Riesling vs. Loire Chenin Blanc vs. Pinot Gris/Grigio
Red grapes: Pinot Noir vs. Sangiovese vs. Tempranillo vs. Grenache vs. Nebbiolo
Using the Coravin, practice tasting pairs of wines within the same group repetitively until it becomes easy to tell them apart. As you work with the various wines you’ll quickly note how similar the fruit qualities can be but how the non-fruit and winemaking signatures are completely different. Just as important, if not more so, you’ll note how the structure of each wine is also very different.
One last piece of advice: great progress is made by making small incremental changes over time. Remember that mastering deductive tasting requires a duration of time and a lot of repetition with great sensory acuity. Be patient and remember to feel good every time you learn something during the journey.