What Practicing Is Really All About

As someone who grew up in a very musical family, I have always been aware that practicing is something that musicians need to constantly do to develop and maintain their skills. Instrumentalists practice, singers practice, conductors practice, and even composers and theorists practice. Skills are built through practice, but what is really going on as we do all of this?

If you ask ten different musicians you might get eight different answers and explanations. Some will say that we should practice as much as possible while others will say that efficient and carefully planned practice is really the key. Some insist that we must practice every single day without miss, yet others will embrace taking days off. The practice needs of a performer will obviously vary from those of a conductor or composer.

Neuroscientists have been conducting an increasing amount of research into the process of skill development for a multitude of reasons (here is one example). Daniel Coyle has written extensively about how some of this research might relate to athletes and musicians among others in his New York Times bestseller The Talent Code (he also maintains an informative website here). While Coyle’s writings are a bit less than scientific, I have found many of his insights and suggestions to be very beneficial both personally and for most of my students.

According to a lot of this research, practice is the act of repeating a particular task as many times as possible with correct form in order to gain proficiency. If we break it apart, we find three key components of practice: 1) defining the specific task at which we are trying to become proficient 2) defining what is meant by “correct form” and 3) repetition repetition repetition.

We can illustrate this with a simple example. Imagine back to when we were first learning to tie our shoes. The learning of shoelace tying can be broken down into these three components. We must first define the task itself in as great of detail as possible. We might achieve this by observing a perfectly tied shoe, paying close attention to how much tension is in the shoestring, how large the loops are, how easy it is to untie, the geometry of the laces, etc. In other words, we must first determine exactly the sort of knot we wish to learn how to tie and have as complete a picture of this in our minds as possible.

Next, we need to define and determine the correct form for tying that knot. Our goals might include efficiency, speed, reliability, versatility, etc. We might pay attention to which parts of which fingers we use to grip the lace, when to apply tension, how much tension to apply, in what order to assemble the knot, etc. If we can’t use the correct form right away, we must develop a process through which we can learn it.

Often this is as simple as slowing it down or practicing just part of the process over and over at full speed before moving onto the next part. Other times we need more creativity and problem solving than this to learn the correct form. Sometimes it is easy to tell whether or not we are developing correct form by ourselves. Other times we benefit from having another person observe us and provide feedback.

Last is the repetition part of the process. Once we are very certain of the knot itself and the means by which to make it, we repeat the process over and over again until it has become embedded and timed perfectly into our neurological memory. By repetition though, only repetitions using the correct form that achieve the correct knot count toward this total. A bad repetition is as good as no repetition.

From looking at practice in this way, we can quickly predict the likely pitfalls. Some of us spend a lot of time perfecting the wrong set of skills. We’re not sure what correct intonation or rhythm really sounds like. We’re not sure exactly what type of tone quality we want or what type of phrasing we believe best suits the piece we’re playing at the moment. If we do not aim for the correct goal, we stand no hope of achieving it.

Another group of us know exactly which skills we hope to develop but pay no attention to our form. No matter how much we practice, we struggle to gain any sort of consistency because we keep performing the same task in a multitude of different ways. This results in the feeling of never knowing what to expect from ourselves.

Great pianists pay very close attention to fingerings, wrist motions, momentum, and etc. Great brass players pay close attention to their breathing process, posture, embouchure mechanics, mouthpiece placement, and etc. They both know how to break the learning process down into simple steps. They know how and when to use slow practice. They know how and when to break larger sections into smaller chunks. They are creative in their practicing. They frequently record themselves and enlist the help of others to listen to them.

Furthermore, some of us simply don’t do enough successful repetitions. We mistakenly focus on the time we spend practicing instead of the number of repetitions. Twenty successful repetitions is twenty successful repetitions, no matter how long it takes. Some of us will spend 8 hours just to get to twenty successful repetitions of a passage while others of us can reach that goal within 10 minutes.

We also count failed repetitions as no different than successful repetitions. I have heard too many students play a particular passage over and over again, failing each time, only to have succeeded on their hundredth attempt. Instead of repeating the successful attempt over and over again, they move onto something else. They have just taught their nervous system how to be inconsistent on that passage!

Finally, great practicers focus a lot of their time on basic skills rather than advanced ones. Basic skills are those things that are called for in practically any piece of music we will ever play. This includes sound production, articulation, flexibility, endurance, intonation, rhythm, etc. By working on these basic skills, we improve our ability to play almost all music. In contrast, by working on a more advanced skill we only improve our playing for those rare times when that skill is necessary.

In conclusion, effective practicing is about the marriage of intellect and will. Merely logging hours in a practice room is not sufficient. We must also strive to understand, refine, and direct our practice habits. That said, being efficient is not enough either. It takes many many repetitions to fully master a skill and many many skills to master a craft. Even the tiniest of improvements to a practice routine can yield huge differences in results when multiplied over days, weeks, months, and years.

Happy practicing . . .

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