It’s a word that can summon a variety of emotions, everything from joy to downright fear. But in my experience, I’ve found that perhaps the most common response is confusion. Not confusion about what to practice – whether it’s written in a notebook or engrained in the mind, we usually remember what the assignment was – but instead confusion about how to practice.
Lots of people assume that practicing is something we just do and that by spending time practicing we automatically get better. They believe that if somebody is struggling to play a piece of music well, the answer is that they simply aren’t putting enough time into it. In the music lesson, the teacher might also take the same route, fearing that their student isn’t practicing enough.
Sure, there’s a certain amount of truth to this approach. After all, if someone never touches their instrument then they’re not likely to improve. However, nearly all music students have at some point practiced (and sometimes quite a lot) only to end up feeling like they aren’t really getting anywhere with it. What if the student I described above had in fact spent a long time practicing, but during the lesson was still told he or she just needed to practice more? That scenario is actually very common, and it can be extremely frustrating – so frustrating that it could cause people to quit.
Thankfully, the story doesn’t have to end this way. If you feel like that frustrated student, we can rewrite it. If your practicing seems like a road to nowhere, that does not mean you aren’t working hard enough, or aren’t talented enough, or any of the other things we fear may be wrong with ourselves. All it means is that you haven’t been taught how to practice.
Here are the 4 big picture concepts that you should keep in mind to ensure highly effective practice...
We generally don’t like doing things that have no purpose. And why should we? They’re pointless! Yet it’s surprisingly easy for music to feel “pointless” to students. They have their lessons, they do their practicing… and then what? Why did they do it? Why should they continue doing it next week, or next month, or next year? These can be very real and concerning questions for students.
This is a sign that the student has no clear purpose for their studies. Luckily, purpose comes in many different shapes and sizes. “Purpose” as a music student doesn’t have to mean that your goal is to become a professional musician playing concerts for large audiences. Music can be a casual pastime, a career path, or anything in between. But music can have purpose no matter where you fall on that spectrum, and finding that purpose is the key to loving it and staying motivated (this is true for many things, not just music!).
So what is this purpose, and how do we find it? For music, it’s actually rather simple: we find outlets for our playing. An outlet is any situation in which our music-making has significance. This could be playing for friends or family members, teaching what you’ve learned to somebody else, or any other activity that brings meaning to you. And if you don’t need your music-making to bring external value to other people, then that is just fine too! Many people are perfectly content playing only for themselves, learning simply for personal enjoyment. I only mention these outlets as examples of solutions if personal enjoyment isn’t enough, since that’s one of the most common reasons why people lose interest in their studies. If that’s the case for you, then find someone to listen to you play! Try sharing your music with others, whether or not you think you’re “ready,” because studying music without ever sharing it can easily feel like a pointless exercise. Plus, you might be surprised to see just how much enjoyment your music could give others.
Having goals is important. Without them, our work is aimless – we have no idea what we’re doing or what we’re hoping to get out of it. This is fairly common knowledge, which is why many people agree that successful practicing requires goals. However, goals are only useful as long as they’re motivation, not punishment. Too often, people speak of needing to “hold yourself accountable” to your goals. Yes, you want to achieve your goals, but the way to do that is by setting interesting and exciting goals, not by being afraid of failing to reach them!
We occasionally set goals that we don’t reach. This is perfectly normal, and it can actually be a good thing, because it helps us learn about ourselves. But if we take our failure to reach goals too personally, we develop a relationship of fear with them. Rather than being excited about pursuing the things we’re interested in, we start living in fear of not doing them! That’s clearly backwards, so instead, let’s create a positive relationship with our goals. To do this, we need to set realistic goals, and reward ourselves if we meet them but not feel bad if we don’t.
The most realistic goals are the ones we can meet very quickly, sometimes as quickly as in just a few minutes. This is a somewhat new definition of “realistic.” After all, there are plenty of things we’re fully capable of achieving if we’re given a long enough time to do so. But using that broader definition allows other things to creep in, things that we aren’t actually likely to get done. For instance, I could’ve “realistically” become a professional tennis player instead of a pianist. I was always in good physical health and took enough tennis lessons that I probably could’ve pursued it seriously. But is the goal of becoming a pro tennis player something I would’ve likely achieved? Definitely not! I knew that I wasn’t focused enough on tennis to play at that level, so I didn’t set that goal. In that sense, becoming a pro tennis player would’ve been realistic, but not really realistic for me.
That’s a fairly large-scale example, but the same concept holds true on a smaller scale as well. If I sit down at the piano with a brand new piece of music and say “I’m going to learn this piece,” that’s probably not realistic. Sure, I might have all the skills needed to eventually play the piece once I’ve learned it thoroughly. But in that first practice session, at that specific moment, it is not realistic for me to focus on a goal that could potentially take a long time to meet. Instead, I want to think about something that I can expect to achieve right then and there. Perhaps it could be “I’m going to get comfortable playing the first line of music slowly.” Unless it’s an extraordinarily challenging piece of music, that’s probably a goal I could easily meet fairly quickly. And if I don’t meet the goal, that’s perfectly ok! I just resolve to come back to it next time, and that’s that.
When asked why they practice, countless students reply “because my teacher/parent told me to.” The practicing these students do is exactly what you’d expect: a mindless passing of time in order to get the validation of telling someone else (or themselves) that they’ve done their practicing. I’ll confess that I myself am sometimes guilty of that too! If I’m having difficulty with a piece, I might spend more time practicing it simply to take comfort in telling myself “I’ve practiced it a lot.”
While it sounds completely obvious, many people overlook the reality of it: the purpose of practicing is to improve, not to just spend time practicing! If you’re playing through a piece of music but you’re making lots of mistakes, that can hardly count as practicing since you’re in fact teaching yourself the wrong way to play it. Yes, we all make mistakes, but the point of practicing is to practice the piece correctly! Now that I’ve offered some background on the subject, I can talk about the specifics of practicing, what we should do instead of just playing through the piece regardless of how accurate it is.
The basic idea is just that. When we practice, our first priority is playing the piece well. Practicing a piece means training our hands and our mind to perform specific motions – if we train them incorrectly, they’ll repeat them incorrectly. As a former teacher of mine always said, “garbage in, garbage out.”
Playing well requires being comfortable with the piece, so when we are learning a new piece of music our job is to make it comfortable. If we just sit down and try to play an unfamiliar piece, we will almost certainly be uncomfortable, and thus we will play poorly. How do we take something unfamiliar and make it comfortable? We have two powerful tools with which we can address this: playing slowly, and playing small sections. The example I gave earlier of a realistic practice goal used both of those techniques.
It isn’t hard to grasp the principle of these two tricks. A small chunk of a piece is easier to understand than the entire piece all at once is. Likewise, playing something slowly gives us more time to figure out what’s next than playing at full tempo does. What can be tougher is figuring out how and when to use those techniques. What section of the piece should I take? How slow is slow enough? How do I know when I can speed it back up? The answer is always determined by our golden rule: playing well. If I’m making mistakes, or the posture of my hands isn’t good, that means I’m playing faster than I’m ready to. If I’m struggling to find the next notes, I’m looking at too large of a section. Make no mistake (pun intended!), I’m not suggesting that making mistakes when we play is “bad.” Like I said before, everybody makes mistakes. In fact, making mistakes can sometimes be useful, because it shows us what areas of a piece we’re the least familiar with. What I’m saying is that our hands execute the motions that we teach them, so if we’re sloppy when we teach them then they’ll be sloppy when it’s time to perform! No mystery there.
I mentioned that making mistakes can show us what things we’re the least familiar with. That’s correct, but we don’t have to wait for mistakes to happen in order to know what sections of a piece we need to focus on. Truth is, when we’re learning a piece of music, we know deep down what passages need the most work. They’re the spots that make us contort our faces into strained expressions, that cause our shoulders to tense up, that make our hands fumble with uncertainty. We might get uncomfortable just thinking about those places in our music! As you read that description, there might have been a specific passage in one of your own pieces that entered your imagination – and that’s the passage you need to focus on. There’s the proof for it: we already know what we need to work on, if we’re honest with ourselves.
I saved the principle of personal honesty for the end because in a certain sense it’s the driving force behind everything I’ve talked about here. Finding your purpose as a musician requires honesty. It requires you to be able to say “I’m not satisfied doing things this way,” because you can’t figure out what will bring you meaning until you admit that you haven’t found it (again, true in many areas of life besides music). Setting realistic goals requires honesty because we need to acknowledge our limitations in order to be realistic. While it’s realistic for me to say “I’m going to get comfortable playing the first line of music slowly,” I certainly wish I could instead say “I’m going to learn the whole piece today!” That’s tempting, but personal honesty is what keeps me focused on things I can actually achieve. Finally, honesty helps me make sure that I’m practicing for the right reasons, and that the work I’m doing counts as “real” practice. It helps me avoid pounding away mindlessly at a piece just so I can say “I’ve practiced.”
If there’s one thing I want you to take away from this, it’s that feeling unmotivated, untalented, lazy, or any of the other things we may say about ourselves does not mean there’s a problem. All it means is that somewhere along the line, perhaps at one of the points I’ve discussed here, you’ve accidentally taken a route that makes it harder on yourself. Hopefully, this has given you some ideas about how to find a better route.