In order to progress as musicians, we must practice. This is the process of taking things we’re not familiar with and improving upon them. Practicing shows itself in many forms, including learning new pieces, realizing fundamentals of music, instrument mechanics and technique, and listening and analyzing just to name a few.
All of these forms share one common element: problem solving. Problem solving involves changing the way you think about something to achieve a desired outcome.
Over the years, I have been fascinated on the science behind practicing, and the various methods students of music have used to problem solve and incorporate new aspects into their art form. While there are many ways one can approach practicing, I have found that the common thread of psychological awareness and problem solving produces the most dramatic results in the shortest period of time. No matter how you choose to practice, it is more important what you practice and the thought process behind it that makes all the difference.
We practice so that we can be the best musicians we can be, to contribute to this wonderful art form that exists in our society. But improving upon ourselves to the best of our ability is an art form in itself. This article is not meant to discuss the various techniques one can use to practice, but rather conceptualizing the art of it.
What is Practice?
Let’s define what practicing is from the musician’s perspective. Practice is taking something unfamiliar with the desire to make it familiar. So to practice efficiently means to increase one’s awareness of their weaknesses and improve upon them so that they become an instinctual, natural aspect of one’s musicianship.
For example, you practice scales to learn the physical mechanics of melodically moving from one note to another, or you practice with a metronome to develop your sense of consistent, internal time. This is why many great teachers heavily focus on fundamentals, because their application and mastery impact all aspects of musical performance. Also, fundamentals can easily be expanded upon, like taking major scales to practice different articulations, phrasing, or rhythms.
To put it simply, if you sound good when you practice, you’re not really practicing!
Well, to an extent. That statement should read, “If you sound good when you [begin to] practice [something], you’re not really practicing.” If you still sound bad when you’ve been working on something for a while, then something needs to change in your thought process and problem solving in order to sound better. This method of thinking can dramatically change your approach to deconstructing a piece of music, a conceptual idea, or a physical motion to better internalize and incorporate something into your playing.
It is really our brains that play our instruments, not our mouth, hands, or feet. Our brain controls all of our physical actions, as well as our approach and thought processes behind the music. You’d be surprised how effective fixing a problem is by thinking about it differently, not just attacking it with sheer brute force of repetition.
Physical vs. Emotional
While our brain is such a powerful tool to aid us in problem solving, it can also pose a threat to how efficient we practice. Our brain controls our emotional center as well as our physical center. If we start to get discouraged in our practicing and let negative emotions take over, the brain loses its focus to problem solve and retain information. It is human nature, a natural reaction to trying to achieve a desired outcome and not reaching it as quickly as we may want to.
There is a certain conceptual idea about music that can help us reduce this emotional response. I have never met a musician of any age that felt like they didn’t have anything else to learn. There is always something new or unfamiliar to us, and part of our journey as musicians is striving to keep an open mind, incorporate new concepts, and constantly improve. To know that there is always something new means you can enjoy the process of getting better instead of focusing on some unattainable “final goal” of being a 100% master of everything that is music.
If you think about it, what may have been “difficult” for you in the past was actually just something new and unfamiliar to you. So if you ever find yourself getting discouraged, remember that nothing is difficult, it is only new. Don’t get discouraged.
Setting Goals vs. Being Idealistic
Practicing with the intent of trying to reach this unattainable “final goal” is to be idealistic. Thought processes like “Why don’t I sound the way I want to right now?” or “Why can’t I sound like [insert favorite musician here]?” are examples of thinking idealistically.
In the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki, the author mentions the word “practice” as it relates to zazen, or the ritual of meditation. I couldn’t help but think of musical practice, as the activities are very similar.
“…the kind of practice we stress thus cannot become too idealistic. If an artist becomes too idealistic, he will commit suicide, because between his ideal and his actual ability there is a great gap. Because there is no bridge long enough to go across the gap, he will begin to despair.”
“If you do something in the spirit of non-achievement, there is a good quality in it.” “…try not to see something in particular; try not to achieve anything special. You already have everything in your own pure quality. If you understand this ultimate fact, there is no fear.”
This “spirit of non-achievement” may seem at first counterintuitive. Isn’t the goal of practice to achieve something you weren’t able to achieve before? Well, yes and no. There is a difference between being idealistic and setting short and long term goals. To be idealistic is not to be satisfied with your work until you have reached a particular state, but setting goals is realizing your weaknesses and how you might take steps to improve upon them, which is definitely encouraged.
If you practice without a sense of achievement or ideal, you will enjoy the process much more and will begin to approach practicing from a mindful perspective. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind elaborates on the concept of mindfulness in great detail and its relationship to “practice”.
When setting goals, it’s important to assess your weaknesses from a short and long term perspective. However, I don’t think of short and long term as two separate entities. I think they are two sides of the same coin. If you look at goals in the long term, can a single long term goal be split up into many short term goals? On the contrary, if you look at goals in the short term, are there multiple goals that might fit into a single, overarching long term goal? It’s important to look at your practice from the perspective of short and long term combined.
How can we start to approach practice from this point of view?
The method of which you practice is unimportant. Everyone’s ability level, circumstances, and brains are different, so what might work for one person might not work for another. As mentioned earlier, the commonalities present in efficient practicers involve our brain’s ability to problem solve.
The most important thing is to start small. Think about basic arithmetic. Remember the acronym for the order of operations? PEMDAS. This helps us remember not only the correct order to solve mathematical expressions, but it also deconstructs a longer equation into many smaller ones. Imagine solving an equation all at once, instead of thinking about an equation as solving several smaller ones. It would be pretty difficult, right?
Many people practice trying to solve the entire equation at once. I call this “trial and error” practicing. They start by attempting the fully realized idea of the concept they’re working on. For example, someone who learns a piece by playing it at tempo from beginning to end. It might be an OK performance, but there might be a lot of mistakes and some passages that may need more attention. Instead of isolating problem areas, they’ll continue to repeat the whole piece over and over making small adjustments until they get it right. Unfortunately, they’ve played it more times wrong than right! (I think they get lucky.) If you think about this method, you realize that “trial and error” practicing feeds the brain more incorrect than correct information, and ultimately the brain retains unnecessary information.
“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” — Bruce Lee
The trick is to deconstruct what needs to be worked on into small, manageable elements that can be realized and incorporated quickly so your brain only retains “correct” information. A couple examples of this can be:
- Practicing slowly and accurately.
- Breaking up a musical passage into 2 or 4 measure sections.
- Practicing out of time focusing on note accuracy.
- Singing or clapping rhythms to realize correct timing.
- Creating exercises to isolate technical issues, such as articulations, rhythms, or mechanics.
By deconstructing, you’re actually removing familiar elements to focus on more unfamiliar ones.
Knowing when and what needs to be practiced is also important. Are there two measures that need the most work? Start on that first. Are there any sections that are repeated later? No need to re-practice them. This requires a bit of analyzing but by prioritizing material into what needs the most work and/or the highest frequency material, you will increase your efficiency in the practice room, especially if time is a constraint.
The trick is to find ways to always feed your brain correct information, even if it means “rigging the game” so you can always do so.
Quality over Quantity
By now, we’ve looked at practicing from the perspective of your brain and thinking differently. Approaching practice from this angle will help reduce the amount of time it takes you to realize a concept or learn a piece.
Musicians like to focus on practice sessions with the variable of time. “I practiced 8 hours today!” This might seem like an impressive number, but it may not accurately describe how much progress one has made throughout that particular practice session.
If you think about effective practicing as a result of thinking differently and problem solving, you’ll realize that time is inconsequential, it is merely a result of accomplishing the particular goals you have set for that day. As the old saying goes, it’s about quality, not quantity. No matter how you practice, it’s important to start from the mindset of setting goals and accomplishing them for each practice session, rather than completing a given length of time.
For example, when beginning a practice session, you should set clear goals for the day’s work. “I’m going to learn this etude” is too general; rather, “I’m going to learn the first four phrases of this etude at a slow tempo focusing first on rhythms, then articulation, dynamics, and phrasing.” By being very specific, there isn’t any guesswork on approach and what particular problems you are trying to solve. Here are some more examples of general and specific practice goals.
General: “I’m going to practice scales in the jazz style.” Specific: “I’m going to practice bebop scales using swing articulations with a metronome on 2 & 4, focusing on legato phrasing and accentuating upbeats.”
General: “I’m going to practice staying relaxed.” Specific: “I’m going to practice single strokes at a slow tempo focusing on consistency, letting the sticks bounce, and staying relaxed.”
Once you begin to incorporate this thought process into your practice sessions, it will drastically reduce the time it takes you to achieve your desired goals. You can move on to other things in your day, or better yet, progress faster and accomplish more in your dedicated practice time.
Now that you’re practicing is more effective, it’s important to maintain that effectiveness.
Think about exercising. If you’re interested in running, it doesn’t make sense to run a 5K on your first session. You’ll get tired, discouraged, and you probably won’t do it again. However, if you plan to only run 10 minutes a day, it’s easier to reach this target and repeat it consistently. Rig the game so you can win.
It works the same with practicing. Instead of cramming a whole week’s worth of practicing in one day (right before your lesson), it’s much better to set smaller goals and accomplish them every day. Practicing 8 hours only on Saturday is not as effective as practicing 70 minutes a day for a week. Since we’re talking about our brains and retaining information, it’s much easier for our brains to retain information if it’s consistent. Schedule your practice time as if it were another class, or make it a part of your daily routine.
So rig the game so you can win. If you’re having trouble maintaining a consistent schedule, reduce your material so that it’s repeatable every single day. Whether it’s four measures of an etude, a specific technique, or even 30 minutes a day, if it’s small and manageable, it’s repeatable and therefore consistent. 30 minutes a day of mindful, thought oriented practice is much better than 3.5 hours of mindless practice one time a week. Some of my friends keep practicing journals to help them stay on track and to manage their goals.
The Science of Taking Breaks
There is a technique used for productivity called the pomodoro technique. In order to increase mental acuity, you break down periods of work into 30 minute intervals: 25 minutes of work and a 5 minute break by using an egg timer. After four pomodori, you can take a longer break of 15-30 minutes. It’s a technique used by many to structure periods of productivity, and a reminder to take a break once in a while!
There is a lot of merit in taking frequent breaks. The brain can only intently focus on something for a short period of time before the brain loses its agility to retain information. After a break, the brain approaches with the same acuity you started the session with, and will help the brain retain information more effectively.
In the book The 4-Hour Chef, author Tim Ferriss explores the concept of accelerated learning through cooking. It’s really a book about the science of learning anything, and most of the concepts that I’ve used here are implementations of accelerated learning as it relates to practicing. There is one page in particular where he explores the brains ability to retain vocabulary words when learning a foreign language.
It’s called the serial position effect and it relates to improved recall of vocabulary words at the beginnings and ends of lists. If you studied a list of 20 words, you’ll probably be able to recall the first 5 and the last 5 without trouble, but there will be some hesitance in the middle. This same effect works for brain retention and time. The brain will be able to retain and recall say the first and last 10 minutes of a 60 minute continuous practice session with the least amount of effort.
However, if there is a 5-10 minute break in the middle, the serial position effect that occurs at the beginning and end of each session is theoretically doubled, because a single 60 minute session has been split into two separate 25 minute sessions with a 10 minute break, therefore doubling the brain’s retention of information.
When I practice, I always find myself taking many breaks in even shorter intervals. I’ll intently practice for 15-20 minutes and take a 2 minute break — usually just enough time to walk around for a bit, and immediately returning to practice. I find these “flash breaks” really increase the length of time I can focus and how much information my brain retains afterward.
Distraction Free Zones
The last element of thought oriented, efficient practice is being in a completely distraction free zone.
We live in a world where we can access most of the world’s information from a little electronic device in our pockets. While computers and smartphones can be invaluable resources, it is one of the greatest sources of distraction when it comes to practice.
Your practice area should have as little distraction as possible. No email, text messaging, TV’s, extraneous noise, etc. There are many good metronome and tuner apps that exist for iOS and Android, but unless they’re used responsibly, using apps can lead to distraction if you get an important email, text message, or phone call. If I ever use an app during my practice, I like to put my device in “Airplane Mode” so I don’t receive any notifications.
Keep Improvement Relative
Practicing is all about our brain and it’s ability to problem solve and retain correct information. The best musicians in the world are the most efficient practicers — they’ve figured out the right tools, methods, and thought processes that work for them in order to continually improve in the most effective way.
It’s important to keep this improvement relative. We are all striving to be the best musicians we can be and to make the music that resonates with us the most. So enjoy this process: the process of getting better, discovering new musical ideas and concepts, and the wonderful gift we all share to create beautiful music for a lifetime. Happy practicing!