I’ve noticed for years that some people seem to stagnate in their journey to become better players, while other players seem to progress at an astonishing rate. One common denominator that I’ve observed, is that players that do improve quickly have by accident or on purpose, adopted a method of discipline in their practice, that makes more effective use of available time. Unfortunately, I never really had an instructor to give a lesson on HOW to practice correctly; which arguably, should be one of the most important things to understand before picking an instrument up to practice. I’d be interested in hearing other people’s experiences, but I find that over the years, I’ve fallen into at least the three(3) following categories:
FORCED PRACTICE (Unproductive or very slow Progress):
I think I was about 8-years old when my folks decided that I needed to take piano lessons. My lessons were once/week and like most kids that age, I really didn’t like practicing. My folks pretty much forced me to practice about 30-minutes per day. “Go in there and practice your piano lessons!” So reluctantly, I would practice each piece starting from the beginning of the song to the end. Always making mistakes, but blundering through the song to the end. Then look at the clock, and repeat until the time was up. Yes, I gradually got better as my tiny hands became used to the keys and the eye-hand coordination of my youth helped me. But my progress was slow. I didn’t bother repeating measures that I messed-up. Looking back on it, I was actually practicing my mistakes by repeating them over & over again.
MARATHON PRACTICE WITH NO DISCIPLINE (Most people: Fun, but painfully slow Progress):
There was a time when I believed that MORE practice equaled better results. I might go to a concert and say “Wow. That dude can really play!”… “Well, he probably practices 8-hours a day!”. The marathon practice became great fun to me. After all, who doesn’t enjoy wailing away on your instrument hour after hour, just as long as you’re playing something you enjoy? I would emerge from the practice-room, hands tired, mind exhausted with the same old bad habits firmly in place. Although I was improving, I felt I wasn’t making the progress I should. My rate of improvement was stagnating. I would gloss over mistakes and sometimes even avoid the tough measures or runs because they slowed me down. I was not engaging in “effective practice”.
EFFECTIVE PRACTICE (Rapid Progress; Amaze your friends! ):
Engaging in this type of routine is not always exactly pleasant or as fun versus just playing with no Discipline at all. Having your brain commanding your hands to do one thing, and watch them do something else is extremely frustrating, but it is the demon that must be conquered. I’ve found that taking control of my practice-time has served to greatly accelerate my rate of progress on the banjo or guitar. (Insert your instrument here:_______ ) I’m still struggling to define what makes Practice-time effective for me. A few things that have helped. I would appreciate anyone that could add to this list that could further define “Effective Practice” and the discipline to follow them:
- Practice slowly, note by note making certain that each note is played both correctly and in correct timing. It will work against you to play fast, making mistakes. Your mistakes will become rehearsed!
- Every piece has difficult passages and easy passages. Mark the difficult passages with a pencil and set up “loops” to rehearse just those measures over & over again. These might consist of only one measure or even less. Then add adjoining measures as these rough-spots get ironed out. The best “gains” are often made by practicing passages that don’t come easy.
- Keep the goal of a practice session small. We cannot make it to Carnegie Hall in a week. Play a few songs, but focus only on the “vital few” measures that bring out the worse habits in your playing. These are the demons that need to be conquered.
- Minimize distractions, if they are distractions. Some “loops” that I practice for example, require hundreds of repetitions to get my fingers to obey what my brain is telling them to do, so I might put on headphones and listen to a radio show, while slowly repeating the measure going no faster than I can play it perfectly. If not perfect, then I’m going too fast!
- Take frequent breaks about every 10-15 minutes. It gives your muscles and mind a rest.
- I never put my instrument away! Keeping it handy by a chair makes it easy to pick up and practice another short session.
What would you add to this list of “Effective Practice”? I’m interested in what you do, that makes the most of your practice-time.
Neil (Waterloo, Iowa)