Practice Part 1 supplement — Finding Relaxation Through Procedure

Jazz maestro Alan Dawson, whose teaching has reached generations of drummers.  Image via .

Jazz maestro Alan Dawson, whose teaching has reached generations of drummers.  Image via


As one works to locate and remove effort, it becomes clear that effort is easier to spot in its physical manifestations.  Someone practicing a musical instrument may have an easier time isolating points of effort (tightening fingers and wrists, for instance) than, say, a novelist who labors over a particular plot point (though her posture and strained facial muscles might tip her off to the presence of effort).

Many artists develop procedures to facilitate their own relaxation, physical and mental.  Their rituals and procedures reduce decision making and thereby simplifies the practice agenda.  Some examples include . . . 

  • The procedure of copying work by others and then letting this give way to ideas of one's own.  This is the basis for Clark Terry's "Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate" formulation.  In earlier posts, I have pointed to examples in writingpainting, and filmmaking.  
  • Joan Didion's writing routine is to start by retyping the last few pages of her previous day's output.  This gets her into a flow, and then she keeps doing.
  • Bill T. Jones's dance process starts with a perfunctory execution and naming-out-loud of the dance moves, and then he proceeds through various steps toward full-blown expression.
  • Sanford Meisner's Repetition Exercise is a procedural method of accessing one's acting intuition. 
  • Establishing a practice schedule, so that the question "when and where and for how long shall I work?" has been settled in advance.  This removes the moral effort of asking and answering the question "shall I practice?"
  • Establishing a practice routine, so that the question "How shall I start?" has been answered.  For instance, Hemingway always ended his writing day at a point where the starting point for the next day was clear.  He didn't have to make a decision first thing in his writing day.  It had been made at the end of the previous day.  

    Here, Drummer Alan Dawson demonstrates a warmup exercise he developed called The Rudimental Ritual.  


The term ritual is worth noting, as this exercise helps a musician enter into a mindset focused on work, so that she gets warmed up and in a flow, ready to engage some particular problem.  Some writers begin their day with 30 minutes of free writing—nothing to do with their current work, simply a way of getting the words flowing onto a page and opening the conduit from their intuition.

  • Establish practice rules.  For instance, "I will take a five-minute break every half hour," or "No email before noon" or "I will stop after three pages."  Again, this relieves the conscious mind from answering questions that might otherwise distract the artist.

We think of procedures as confining, but as we see here, well-defined procedures can be vehicles of expressive freedom.

Thank you for reading.