written by J. T. Lee, instructor at Metro Music Makers
“Go practice!”— Every music teacher’s favorite line. In fact if there was a GO PRACTICE emoji I’m pretty sure it would be number one on my most-used list. As a musician and teacher, the idea of a need to constantly practice is ingrained into us. It’s an obsessive desire passed from one musical generation to the next. Too often this self-projected anxiety to constantly grow comes with a lack of one very important detail: the HOW to practice.
Even though we push and push our students to spend time on their music, we as teachers make the unfortunate mistake of forgetting to teach students how to approach a practice session. So many times they sit down, running the same four measures the same way and expect different results—and we all know what that’s called… So here are a few ways to approach practicing, and a tip or two on how to mix it up when it gets a little boring.
SLOW IT DOWN
In a previous blog I talked about the idea of slow to fast playing and the idea of rhythmic accuracy. This is by far the most effective way for a student to practice. Start by taking a select section of a piece or exercise to half of the marked tempo. Then if it’s still tough, take it even slower. This may go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: one must use a metronome to do this correctly. If you’re playing to a recording in place of a metronome, use some kind of software to achieve the same effect. Abelton Lite, Garage Band, and Transcribe! are the most cost-effective routes to go about this.
Once you’ve attained perfection at a slow tempo, bump the song up by intervals of 3-5 bpm. Eventually as you reach the original tempo, you’ll be playing the song more accurately – and, many times, even by memory – within the first few sessions.
PRACTICE OFTEN, IN SMALL BURSTS OF INTERVALS
I’ll never forget walking into a lesson in college with my wonderful teacher Kenyon Carter that changed the way I saw practicing. It was my senior year of college, and the recital was quickly approaching. He had placed the wonderfully horrible requirement on me of logging six hours of practice time a day. This was on top of a double-course load, two jobs, and a fairly in-depth service position at my church. In a moment where I was at my wit’s end, he did something brilliant. “Next week, bring an Excel spread sheet with your entire week blocked out in 30-minute blocks. We’ll see where you can fit time in.” He said. To my amazement, I had time that I didn’t realize was there. That, coupled with a slightly fewer hours of sleep, helped me achieve the required time.
When it comes to practicing, extended sessions are not always the most effective way to go. Sometimes you can do more in short bursts of time spread throughout your day. This coupled with a slow to fast practice style will vastly improve the amount of music you’re able to learn. In fact, research shows that in most areas, people who work in short bursts spread through the day are most often the best at what they do. Taking breaks or shifting gears gives your brain a chance to recharge. It also allows you to practice even on days where you don’t think you can.
PLAN YOUR SESSIONS
The easiest way to waste your time is to practice without a plan. Set goals and stick to them. Start by breaking pieces up and working a little at a time in each session. Try your best to meet a practice goal before you call it a day. Also if you’re working on multiple songs, work on parts of each one every day. If you take a day off from a song to practice another one, you’ll very quickly see that it’s one step forward two steps back. I like to break songs into phrases and work them that way from slow to fast. I recently did this while transcribing the bass line to “Sir Duke” by Stevie Wonder, and I feel as though it’s coming easier than some easier songs that I’ve learned simply because I’m learning it in parts.
IF YOU GET BORED, MIX IT UP
We all get tired of practicing, but the best of us always push through. If you’re tired of learning the same things, mix up your sessions. Try working in some songs you actually want to play. If you’re one of my students, you never have to have my permission to learn a song, as long as you meet your goals from me each week. Also try learning a song you hate. Believe it or not, I’ve learned a ton from song that I’ve never wanted to play. Every song has something to offer, even the ones that just aren’t your style. Remember the more versatile you are, the more marketable you are. Also, change your scenery. My little corner of my house gets a little old after a while. Sometimes it’s fun to grab a guitar and go sit on the porch under the stars, and I never go to the beach without an instrument. Why would I waste such an inspiring atmosphere? Finally, go see some live music. The most inspiring thing to me is watching someone who’s better than me and remembering that they’re only human. If they can, I can.
Practicing is tough, but needed if you ever want to accomplish anything as a musician. Hopefully some of these hints will help make your practice time a little more effective, or at the very least bearable. If you have any other hints or secrets you use, please share them in the comment box. I’m always looking for new ways to self-motivate and to motivate others!