For musicians, practicing is a fact of life. For professionals, it's a basic part of our daily existence, our past, our very being. But for aspiring musicians, it is often regarded with negative feelings. As a teacher I find that more often than not the missing element of a student's development is their complete lack of insight into how to practice. This is not a slight against my students; I too spent countless hours fighting this same challenge. Literally years were spent not knowing how to practice. During this time, playing music was more often that not a miserable experience. The joy of the art was lost to me, and the ability to support myself as a musician was beyond my reach. When I look back on it, there really seems to be no reason for me to have continued as a musician. Practically speaking I would have had more fun and made more money doing something else. Why I stuck with it is hard to remember, but how I raised myself from that predicament is clear (click here for Dave's story).
The most common problem my students face is that they do not have enough technical facility to accomplish their musical goals. This in turn leads to frustration at how long it takes for them to learn new material, and in some cases, creates serious levels of insecurity that make it hard for them to enjoy playing. This often leads to rushed practicing sessions. These sessions produce virtually no results and in turn lead to more feelings of being left behind, which leads to even more impatient practicing. This vicious cycle can be avoided with the following simple advice:
1. slow down
2. expect things to take a long time to accomplish.
3. narrow your practice concepts
1. Practicing slowly is one of the hardest things for new musicians to learn. Forget about WHAT you are practicing, just think about HOW you are practicing. It is without a doubt too fast. When we are practicing, we are often assuming that just because our mind understands the material that our body has also learned it. This in patently false. Understanding a concept consciously and being able to physically reproduce it are two different things. For example, understanding how to ride a bike is not the same as actually riding it. It takes thousands of repetitions of pedaling before a person can actually ride a bike without thinking about it. The ability to maintain balance while pedaling and moving in a three dimensional sphere is not something you can just "think" your way through. Now take all of these physical elements (the micro-movements necessary of each finger of a pianist are significantly more complicated then just riding a bike) add the elements of theory, melody, rhythm, etc, and imagine how much harder it is for a pianist to play something that they have only played a handful of times and you can begin to imagine how long it takes to learn a single concept on the piano. Then add the fact that you'll have to do this for every single motion that you might come across while playing the piano and you should have a better idea of how difficult it is to play the instrument. All of this needs to be said so that we can start to accept what we need to do while practicing. If it takes thousands of repetitions to learn to pedal a bike correctly, then we'll need thousands of repetitions for every movement our hand makes on the piano. But just repeating it a thousand times is not enough. More importantly, we need to repeat it a thousand times without once making a mistake. Students will often play something, say a scale, three or four times in a row, each time incorrectly. Than they'll get it right, and consider that they are done because they played it right. But the problem is that over that time, they played it incorrectly more times than correctly. This means that they practiced it wrong. Without a doubt, the next time they go to play this scale, they won't be able to play it. This is almost always the result of playing too fast. If instead of playing the scale quickly and getting it wrong four times they had played it slowly once, the ratio of right to wrong repetitions would have been beneficial instead of wasteful. If they played it four times in a row slowly, and stopped after that, then they would have at least gotten it right every time and would not be fighting their own "wrong" practicing. When something is played wrong many times, then it takes a much higher number of correct repetitions to make correct what is wrong. In the meantime, no new learning is taking place, just correction of past mistakes. This can create a vicious cycle in which a student can be practicing for a lot of time every day but not making any progress at all. So in the end, if a student practices slowly, in the course of several days of practicing they actually are saving time by not having to unlearn mistakes.
2. Do not expect anything to be done in one session. In fact, you should expect practicing to take days or even weeks. Our bodies need time to physically accept the information that they are being programmed with every time we practice. The nerves are actually rewiring themselves. This takes time, and much of it is done in our sleep. So this means that anything you have practiced will not really be available for your usage until you have slept on it. That means that anything that is difficult for you to play will need to be played every day for many days before it will be truly learned. I've even found that some things that I've practiced have not started to show up in my playing until several months after I stopped practicing them. When we set goals for ourselves, they need to be long term goals. This brings us to the most dreaded of all words to the young musician; the metronome. The metronome is a musicians best friend for a simple reason; they are the only one who will never lie to you. Your friends will tell you that you sound great, recordings of yourself can be edited to highlight your strengths, and your mind can play tricks on you about when you've finished working on something, but the metronome will always tell you exactly where you stand. If you aren't using a metronome for practicing, then you aren't practicing correctly. For those of you who think that a metronome will make your time robotic or unmusical, stop lying to yourself, your just not capable of using this tool correctly. Any musician with a heart beat can overcome the stiffness of practicing with a metronome when it's time to actually play. If anything, consistent practicing with a metronome liberates you from any fears of losing time, and allows you to play looser and more freely. The proper usage of a metronome is when it is used as a measurement of how well you know something. When you can play something at a set tempo, then you know it at that tempo, and when you speed it up and you can no longer play it as well, you don't know it at that tempo. This makes learning quantifiable. You can keep track of your progress in real, measurable ways. It also makes long term practicing manageable. It is very difficult to practice something over the course of a week or several weeks. Impatience gets the best of us. We will always move ahead too quickly, way before we are actually ready to. But with a metronome we can hold ourselves back and improve at a steady, predictable rate.
3. Students are always trying to learn too much at one time. Of course the combination of class requirements and personal interests naturally leads to an overabundance of practicable material, but in order to move ahead at a steady rate, the student musician needs to narrow their focus more. Very small, attainable skill sets are the ideal. If you need to learn a song, learn only one measure at a time. If you are working on scales, don't tackle too many at one time. Once a simple course of action has been determined, a very high level of focus on each goal is possible. Instead of trying to learn three songs a week, it makes more sense to learn the first eight measures of song in a week. In this way the material is learned in a thorough and precise manner and can become completely internalized. Instead of three partially understood songs, you will instead have a perfected piece of a song. Over time this will all you to learn more total songs. Another benefit of this is that you will very likely never have to learn this song again. Music learned with this intense level of focus is virtually impossible to forget, which means that you won't waste time in the future relearning old material. All of the above is also true of learning the styles of specific musicians. Don't try and learn Parker, Train and Brecker all in one month, or semester, or even year. Instead, pick one and stick with them for a long time. To truly assimilate their styles takes time. The details, such as transcribing and learning to play the transcription, are physical and to be learned in the slow method described earlier. The theory takes time to understand and practically apply. After all of this has happened, the ideas then need time to gestate in the subconscious and become a natural extension of your playing. (To be clear, I'm not advocating that musicians try to sound like other players, although I admit that i have benefitted from the detailed study of specific musicians, most notably jazz organists. The discussion about whether or not to to learn music this way is beyond the scope of this article, but it is worth mentioning that there are good arguments on both sides, and that it is up to the individual to decide how they approach this element of study.) A specific practice schedule using the previous concepts would go as follows: Scales: major scale in quarter notes, two octaves, two hands. Metronome=60 BPM. Play through all twelve keys going through the circle of 4ths (C, F, Bb, etc.) Repeat at 61 BPM, use circle of 5ths. Repeat at 62BPM, ascending chromatically Repeat at 63BPM, descending chromatically Repeat at 64 BPM, use circle of 4ths Stop Continue this process the next day;, starting at 65BPM. When BPM equals 120, start over again at 60 and play 8th notes. When 120BPM is reached again, start at 60 and play triplets in three octaves. When 120 is reached again, start at 60 and play 16th notes in four octaves. When 120 is reached again, begin new exercise. Using this process for every exercise, song, or concept, a student will be able to completely internalize anything that they are practicing. As facility improves and as the student starts to realize their own learning curve, the process can be tailored. For example, increments of one BPM might be too slow for some exercises, but too fast for others. Experimenting with different increments will help the student learn their own ability to retain new ideas, but it is always safe to err on the side of slower, especially in the beginning stages.