You may recall the definition of practice from our previous blog about the book "Outliers." It stated that practicing is "purposefully and single-mindedly playing [your] instrument with the intent to get better." But how do we accomplish this? I can't take sole credit for any of the following ideas, as most of them were taught to me by my own teachers and method books along the way. Regardless, this the approach to practicing I have internalized and aspire to pass on to my own students.
Playing an instrument is just as much, if not more, an intellectual task than a physical one. But, when we are first learning our instrument, the necessary physical development is often more taxing than the mental development. So early on we spend most of our practice time training our fingers, mouths, or limbs to do what we want them too. But soon the fingers learn how to move and the primary focus becomes developing our mental ability to tell the fingers what to do.
This change of developmental focus is where many players become discouraged because they are not fully aware of the need for adaptation in their practice habits.
This does not happen at the same stage of development for each player, but it is a critical hurdle for every player. It is also important to realize that even after our primary focus has shifted to training our minds, there will still sometimes be instances where we need to revert to the former and actively train our fingers to execute a new movement. We are never entirely out of one mindset and into the other. Ideally we want to always be aware of whether we are being challenged by a mental or a physical difficulty.
The following tips are intended to help us train our minds. It is often said that learning an instrument builds character. These are practical guidelines to facilitating that development.
How to Practice Effectively:
- Have a plan
- Listen intently to what you are playing
- Know what you are playing
- Think about HOW you are thinking
- Be patient with yourself
- Memorize everything
Have a Plan.
There is a time and place for simply sitting down at or with your instrument and exploring the different sounds it can produce, noodling through strings of ideas, or flipping quickly from exercise to exercise. But this should not be the bulk or even a substantial portion of our practice time. If that is the extent of the time spent with your instrument, you will not progress very rapidly, if at all. Allow yourself a few moments of this "free play" each practice session, but most of our practice time, especially early on, should be focused on specific goals. As we train our mind and fingers, these approaches become more and more the same, but it is important to always have specific goals for your practice session.
The plan for a practice session can include tasks such as correcting a rhythm, memorizing a scale, bringing out dynamics, studying a new concept, or reviewing previous concepts. Incorporate some review into each of your practice sessions. No goal is too small or too large, but be realistic about what you can achieve in the time allotted.
Listen Intently to What You Are Playing.
When we are learning a musical instrument, our continuing goal is always to produce music. It may seem overly obvious, but is surprisingly often neglected. Listen to the sounds you are producing. All of our practice should sound musical. Yes, even those scales can be musical. Listen to the tone you are producing. Listen to the way it sounds when executed correctly. Listen to the way it sounds when it's executed incorrectly. Often we can catch our own mistakes just by using our ears. Technology makes it simple to record yourself while practicing. Do it. Listen to it. Coach yourself. If you listen to your recording and know exactly what your teacher would tell you to work on if they had heard it, then work on it! You can make it part of the plan for your next practice session.
Know What You Are Playing.
As early as a few weeks after beginning to study an instrument, we have begun to develop muscle memory. This is good. But we want to be aware of what our muscles are remembering to do. It is easy to begin playing a scale and then let muscle memory take over and shut off our active thought process. As our skill level increases, the difficulty of task we can complete entirely by muscle memory also increases. So when we find ourselves playing something simply by muscle memory, it is time to make the task more difficult in order to continue improving. Play that scale using a new pattern, or at a faster tempo - whatever will reengage your mental processing.
Another instance where we need to be aware of knowing what we are playing is when we figure something out "by ear." Great! That is an immensely valuable skill. But to put our efforts to best use, it also important to apply our mental processes to knowing what we just figured out. What scale did I use? What is that interval? What chord progression is that? This will not only aid in retention, but also enable you to figure out more and more complex melodies or progressions, and to more easily move the ideas to new keys. This is an important part of how we train our ears.
Think About HOW You are Thinking.
Initially, this may be a foreign concept, and many young students may not yet have the mental capacity to reflect on their own thought processes. But an involved parent or effective teacher can begin preparing their mind to do this. If you are working through a piece, a scale, an exercise, or even working on your improvisation, think about how you are getting from one note to the next. One of the continually fascinating properties of music is that there is always at least three different ways of processing the movement from one note to the next. If you are thinking about your fingerings, challenge yourself to think about scale degrees. If you are thinking about scale degrees, see if you can follow the notes as related to your chord tones. If you are thinking about the rhythms, sometimes it is appropriate to challenge yourself to think about the phrases. These are just a couple of examples, the implications are nearly limitless. But one skill of a truly great player is their ability to fluidly change their thought processes while they are playing.
Be Patient with Yourself.
Remember how we mentioned that learning an instrument builds character? This is a huge part of it. Many students approach learning an instrument, or learning more about an instrument, as a means to improving their self esteem. That is OKAY! Developing musical skill IS something we should be proud of and want to share our accomplishments in with others. But be honest with yourself. Our egos often get in the way of our growth as people and as musicians. If you feel like something should be easy for you and it turns out not to be, that is okay. It simply means we need to change our way of approaching the challenge, often breaking it down into smaller steps. Be patient with yourself along the journey from where you are and where you want to be. When we get frustrated with ourselves, we are only making the journey longer and more difficult. Do not rush through concepts simply because they seem too elementary. We must learn to add before we can learn to multiply.
As it is with any field of study, each concept builds on the previous. Students who find themselves up against a wall they cannot get over are almost always there because they did not sufficiently internalize previous concepts. The more you have memorized, the faster you will progress. Sometimes we don't understand the importance of a concept until we see how it is used to facilitate the next concept. It doesn't have to mean you will never get to the next level, it just means we need to employ all of the previous practice tips to review previous material. Sometimes we learn more when we go back and review because we now have a larger perspective. Then, once we have gotten a good running start, we may find we can now easily jump over that wall we couldn't have climbed over before.