OK. I know. This is an impossibly large topic to cover in one blog post. But as it relates to My Process, there are some cornerstone elements to good practicing I can cover in a normal length blog post. Practicing is where 99% of the effort and progress happens. Lessons are short. Rehearsals are infrequent. Performances are even more infrequent. Practicing happens every day. Those lessons, rehearsals, and performances are where we put the pieces of our work together. If good practice hasn’t happened, there simply aren’t going to be enough pieces to put something meaningful together.
Two weeks ago I talked about how to begin practicing a new work. I believe those first few practice sessions are the most difficult. Once you have some momentum it’s a lot easier to be productive in the practice room. Today I’m going to cover some of my cornerstones of good practice.
The biggest challenge I have with students is shifting their practice goals. Most students think the more hours they spend in the practice room the better they will be. This isn’t always the case. Successful musicians have “Goal Oriented” practice sessions instead of “Total Amount of Time” practice sessions. Focusing on a goal rather than the clock will help you accomplish that goal as quickly as possible. That could be 10 minutes or that could be 4 months. The point isn’t how long it takes, the point is to accomplish that goal. When I am staring at the clock, I find myself distracted and tasks generally take longer. Obviously we all have lives and schedules so ignoring the time isn’t really an option. However that doesn’t mean we have to know what time it is throughout the session. Simply set an alarm clock when you have to be done, and spend that time practicing goals rather than an hour and a half. If you don’t accomplish your goal, you can at least know you were as productive as you possibly could be in the time you had.
When deciding on these goals it is important to understand that some goals will take what I call “Calendar Time” and others will take what I call “Hour Time”. Let me give you some examples to explain what I mean. Your snare drum roll isn’t going to go from Morse code to silky smooth in a day. No matter how many hours you practice. That takes calendar time. Trusting a new technique or feeling really solid memorizing Bach, will take days and days. Thus, they improve over calendar time. Smaller tasks such as learning a small orchestra part or memorizing 32 bars of music can be done in a shorter amount of time. Thus hour time. Understanding the difference between the two will help in establishing realistic goals and keep you from pulling your hair out.
When we get ahead of ourselves and expect success quicker than it most likely will come, we tend to skip over important parts of the process. Skills like learning the snare drum roll take days of practicing isolated exercises so you trust the new technique. If those days are rushed through, your body will not trust the new technique and thus make small mistakes. Which will then have to be corrected (or even worse not corrected) later. The same is true for memorizing a big marimba piece. If the early days of memorization are not at a careful and deliberate pace, the notes will not be truly cemented in your brain. Thus more memory slips and lower confidence in what you are playing.
How many of you have prepared something for a lesson that you thought was ready and then walked in and laid an egg? Who has said “it was fine in the practice room, I just don’t understand why I can’t play it here?” I know I have! Some of that has to do with nerves (which is an entirely different blog post!) but a lot of that has to do with preparation. Often we tend to practice things over and over again until we get them right. When we do this we are practicing warming up with lots of mistakes, and then around the 7th or 8th time we get it right. Well in the real world you don’t get 7 or 8 times through before it really counts. I don’t know who originally said it but I love the quote “Don’t practice until you get it right, practice until you can’t get it wrong.” This is a HUGE difference in philosophy and vitally important in how we practice.
Let’s use the analogy of a marathon to help us understand the pacing of learning a piece. The last post was focusing on those early days in say mile 0 – 2. The researching, the early preparation. Miles 3 – 5 are really an extension of that. You are problem solving. When drilling sections begin to ask yourself if you are happy with your accuracy. Are you happy with your phrasing? Are you happy with your sticking? Will that sticking work at a faster tempo? Are you happy with your sense of style? If not, slow the tempo down and be VERY deliberate about fixing those issues. If need be, practice in slow motion. This slow motion practice can be out of any sort of tempo and can be to simply walk through whatever issues you are trying to solve. DON’T move on until you have fixed the issue. Too many students think that simple repetition will fix problems. This is a lazy attitude. It is much more difficult to really be analytical and tackle the issues but far more efficient. If you realize a sticking probably won’t work when ultimately up to tempo. Stop and walk through options in slow motion. Solve the issue and then find a tempo you can comfortably execute the new sticking.
Once most issues have been solved, find a tempo at which you can comfortably execute all of your decisions. This is now your working tempo. The goal should be to establish trust and confidence in our decisions. Not moving up in tempo. It can take a LONG time to get to this point and it can take even longer until you are truly ready to move up in tempo. No matter how slow or how fast, this is our starting point. We are at mile 7 or 8 at this point. That’s roughly a third of the way through the entire process! And we have not made any increases in tempo yet. Let that sink in. Roughly a third of the learning process is solving problems and memorization. Most students are not disciplined enough to spend that amount of time on practicing at that slow of a tempo. Because our brains are wired to want success immediately, we all have a tendency to speed up and see what we can do before we are really ready. It’s a natural desire, but one we must fight against.
Miles 9 through about 17 are the methodical advancement of tempo towards our ultimate tempo. Let’s say you are at quarter = 45. I want to be so solid and confident in my playing that even before I speed the metronome up to 50, I already know I can do it. This not only helps my accuracy but really helps my confidence in my playing. As I’ve said before success is a learned behavior and having small successes along the way like this build toward even bigger success. As you progress from 50 to 55 and 55 to 60 you should do mini inventories of all those decisions you made early on to make sure they still are working. Perhaps some phrasing needs to change now that you know the piece better? Perhaps the sticking you thought would work, isn’t working and you need to change it? By having this methodical approach, you will be shocked at how much faster this part of the “marathon” goes. Because you did so much good work early on, you will be able to progress much quicker. You will also have fewer mistakes to fix and muscle memory to unlearn. It’s around this point I hear lots of students say “Oh!! Now I get it.”
Miles 18 through 23 are when we start switching from practice mode to performance mode. This is the switch from just drilling sections to focusing on performing sections once. Like I said earlier, you don’t get 5 or 6 warm up runs before your performance. You get one shot. When problem solving and working up to tempo you are drilling sections for consistency. Now the job is to be consistent the first time. This shift in focus is really for your brain more so than your hands. I tell students to practice performing once……, a lot. Meaning give yourself one shot at something (without stopping) and when you are done analyze how it went. Then repeat and see if you can improve. This is also a great time to start recording yourself. This sort of pressure will mimic the pressure of performing.
Miles 24 through 26 are for fine tuning and playing for people. You know the piece at this point and you are really close to being ready for your performance. Now you just need to get really comfortable playing in front of people and incorporating small bits of advice your colleagues can give you. Whenever I am at this point I always feel so glad I spent all those hours problem solving early on. I have a ton of confidence because I have solidified those decisions over the last 20 or so “miles”. Now is not when I want to be discovering new issues. We are far too late in the game for that. So much work goes into the beginning so that at this point I am just focusing on execution and musical goals.
This learning process is not easy and it can be made even more complicated if you have multiple works to learn at the same time and different performance dates for all of them. That’s our topic for next time! Thanks for the comments and shares on Facebook!