Does practice make perfect? It depends on how you practice, of course. Musicians learn quickly that homework is a requirement to play an instrument. Most sign up willingly. It can be very rewarding to watch as your technical ability on an instrument improves and usually happens most noticeably in the first few years of study. This feeling of achievement is one of the reasons music is an important part of elementary education. It’s also fun to play with the band.
As the easy studies become easier and more challenging pieces are attempted, it becomes apparent that a few minutes of practice here and there will not be enough. More time playing is needed. In this frame of mind, practice equals time. You might say something like, “I practiced for an hour yesterday,” or, “I played that song so many times, my fingers are sore.” In all this time spent playing for the sake of improving, it is important to look at what is actually occurring during that time.
There is a difference between practicing and playing. Playing is the act of performing a piece of music to the best of your current ability for enjoyment and artistic expression. It’s the best reason to study music in the first place. Practice, on the other hand, is a process intended to improve one’s ability on an instrument. In order to do this effectively, goals should come before time. Time is still very important, but a session of focused, goal-oriented study can often outweigh hours of playing and hoping.
The following practicing strategies have helped me whenever I am faced with new piece or challenging passage to play. I have used each of these techniques at one time or another while preparing my latest recording of guitar music, Platforms.
Being a musician often means wearing more than a few different hats and learning new skills, so I often find myself using these techniques elsewhere. At first, many of the items on this list appear to be music-specific, but with a little imagination, they can apply to almost any new endeavor and applied as needed.
1. DON’T GET BORED. Good practice involves identifying trouble spots and improving them through repetitive playing. The problem with doing this is that boredom can become an issue. At a certain point, the mind may start to wander: motions are being made, but the value of that rehearsal time is diminishing. Good practice involves staying focused, and a good way to do this is to set clear goals and track the progress as you perform. Set a goal for the number of times you would like to rehearse a section. Two dozen? Thirty? Fifty five? For passages of just a few notes, I have used 96 as my goal if it involves a new technique. The goal kept me focused. I would actually stop, pick up my pen, and put a check mark on the score at the end of each pass. Before doing this, be sure the technical details are worked out. You don’t want to waste time and add confusion by studying a section incorrectly for any amount of time. And always listen to your body to be sure that the repetition isn’t causing injury. If you don’t want to stop and note each time a trouble spot has been played, you could use time as your goal. Still, with this method, I find it helpful to keep a mental note of the number of times a section was played during the proposed amount of time. The key is to focus on the measured goal and nothing else. Your concern should be completing the rehearsal structure you have set up. Don’t worry about the actual goal just yet, which is to play the difficult section perfectly within the piece. This method makes practice feel more like a task than a chore.
2. ISOLATE, THEN REINCORPORATE. If a section of music is problematic, don’t allow it to remain to be the bumpy part of the song that you hope will improve through repeated performance of the entire piece. Work on that part specifically. Once that part has been worked out, begin to add some of the notes leading into and away from the isolated area as you practice. When you are looking at one section, it’s all you’re thinking of, so you need to reincorporate the surrounding notes as well before returning to the entire piece. Doing this will test how well you have prepared the section because your mind is going into it cold after thinking of other notes first. Additionally, make sure that the parts that lead in and out of the difficult passage come just as easily.
3. CREATE ELEMENTS. If you’re having trouble with just a few notes in a piece, identify the element at the heart of the issue and recreate it in another context. A guitarist, for example, might encounter a unique challenge picking a series of notes. The picking pattern can be isolated as a unique element and reinterpreted over different notes that fall on the same strings. It could be as simple as moving the notes of the fretted hand up the neck a half step for each run through. Piano players can sometimes benefit from isolating melodic elements and playing them in other keys. Once you have mastered an element, you could use the idea as a study piece. A woodwind player could take a series of intervals, for example, and transpose them throughout the instrument. Reinterpret the idea in as many ways as you care to imagine.
Intervals and rhythms don’t necessarily have to be maintained to benefit from working with elements. Sometimes, changing one pitch a half step or adding another note to the rhythm can reveal a lot about an element that proves helpful in the ultimate performance of the piece as well as in the cumulative process of understanding a particular instrument.
When putting an element in a different context, think of yourself as a composer. You are writing a new piece of music centered around the idea. You can begin to think of your element as a motive or fragment of a theme and build a song around it. This type composition is generally referred to as an etude, but it can also lead to some wonderful pieces of music.
4. SLOW DOWN. If a passage is not working out at the required tempo, don’t keep practicing at that tempo hoping to get it right. This doesn’t work. There is a term for when a few repeated efforts haphazzardly get desired results: luck. You don’t want to play the lottery with a performance. When you slow down, you have time to learn the steps needed to make the performance successful. You are actually learning a new skill when this happens. Slowing down allows you to think about the fine details and commit them to your new skill set. Once you’ve done this, you can do the opposite in the next tip.
5. AIM HIGH. If your goal is to run a 100 meter race, practice running 150. With 150 as your extreme, you will easily be operating at full steam when you make it to 100. Once a section has been conquered by slowing down, take it a little faster that it should be. Doing this will also reveal any weaknesses that might remain.
6. DO NOT PRACTICE MISTAKES. Play difficult passages slowly enough so that the motions are accurate. As you build speed and encounter mistakes, back off a little. This is similar to slowing down for a section to be rehearsed, but the emphasis here is to never play a part incorrectly while continually playing through a piece. Slow down for the difficult portion and return to the proper tempo after the trouble spot.
7. KEEP IT LOOSE. Don’t tense up. Think about your whole body and practice everything for the way you will eventually perform the entire piece. Anxieties that build as a challenging section approaches won't always be apparent in the parts of the body that manipulate the instrument. Keep those parts relaxed, but remember that your whole body is involved in the process of playing music. Be aware of how it is doing. Sometimes shoulders will get tense. Your posture could decline while focusing on the music. Check your breathing, especially if you’re not a wind player. Be sure you are getting enough air. Once stiffness sets in, it has a way of spreading and clamping down over an entire performance, so monitor the rest of your muscles as you go.
8. DON’T FRET A STEP BACK. Expect to lose a little ground the next day. Each practice session will yield results, but the start of each session isn’t always going to be as good as the end of the last one. Memorizing complex passages and techniques requires time to become second nature. It is at the heart of why practice is so important. We cannot truly master anything during one session of rehearsal or study. Prepare yourself for this by knowing that even though a section was worked on diligently for an hour that it will need review several more times. Do not put the pressure of disappointment on your development, and realize that each day’s growth will require touch up in future sessions.
CONTINUED IN PART TWO...