THE INSTRUMENT IS ALWAYS THE BOSS. I DON'T CARE HOW MUCH YOU PLAY ON THE INSTRUMENT, IT ALWAYS SURPASSES WHAT YOU CAN DO ON IT. EVEN IF YOU LIVE TO BE THOUSAND YEARS OLD, YOU STILL FIND YOURSELF BEHIND. THE BEST WAY TO FIGHT IT IS TO PRACTICE AT EVERY OPPORTUNITY. DIZZY GILLESPIE
YOU HAVE ALWAYS HEARD THE SAYING, PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT, BUT I HAVE A BETTER SAYING, ONLY PERFECT PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT. BY THAT I MEAN THAT THE ACTUAL AMOUNT OF TIME YOU PRACTICE DOESN'T NECESSARILY IMPROVE YOUR ABILITY, IT'S HOW YOU PRACTICE THAT'S IMPORTANT. IN THIS ARTICLE I WOULD LIKE TO ADDRESS THINGS THAT I'VE DONE OR HAD STUDENTS DO OVER THE YEARS THAT ARE BOTH GOOD AND BAD, AND HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR PRACTICE HABITS.
SUGGESTED PRACTICING LENGTHS
For anyone practicing, no matter the age and level, there is a point during your practice in which you no longer retain information, both mentally and physically, and both are equally required for singing or playing an instrument. This is what I call the tired point. Practicing beyond this point will make you feel like you are actually getting worse, but rest assured you are improving. You will see the difference the next time you play or sing. I do not recommend, however, continuing long after this point of tiredness. For each person this will be different depending on your age and level. Beginning students between the ages of about 5-9, the normal length of practice I suggest is 15-25 minutes, for an older child or adult beginner, it may be 30-40 minutes, and for higher levels, it may be 1-2 hours, again, depending on the level and age of the student. You will know when you hit that tired point. You can, however, break up your practicing into segments. So if you can only do 30 minutes, take a break and then practice another 30 minutes at a later time. Practicing at short segments but often is the best way to learn over a period of time. When I was studying for an audition for a college entry, I would practice 2 hours, then take a 15-20 minute break to stretch, walk, and get something to eat and drink. Your body and mind need this break to recuperate so that you can continue again and digest what you are learning, both mentally and physically.
HAVE YOUR INSTRUMENT IN A CONVENIENT LOCATION
Make sure you place your instrument in a place that you pass by and see often for ease of practicing and to keep it fresh in your mind to remind you to practice. Since I mentioned above that practicing short segments often is the best way to learn, this is a perfect way for the student to play for a few minutes every time he or she walks by the instrument. These short practices can add up to a lot by the end of the day and week. It's also important to have the instrument in an area that the student CAN practice often, not where everyone watches TV or other family activities, for example, where the student may not be able to practice often. On the other hand, you do want the instrument in a place that others can hear the student to offer feedback and encouragement. Also try and make the surroundings as light and fun as possible, not in a dark room or basement where the student may be discouraged from practicing often.
Another mistake I have often seen students do is to start at the beginning of the piece when a mistake is made, no matter where they are in the song or how they played the song at the beginning. I like to think of problem areas like a tangle that you need to straighten out, so playing the entire piece is not going to get the tangle out, and in fact, sometimes reinforces the mistake and it then becomes a learned error rather than a mistake. Here is the order of learning a new piece that I have always found to help me:
1. To begin, play the piece all the way through, no matter how many mistakes you make, so you become familiar with the song and where it’s going musically.
2. Divide your song in sections to learn. If you are a beginner, your song will probably only be a few lines to just one page at most, for higher levels, you may have several pages to learn. Use your own judgment on how long of a section you would like to learn at a time. Since you have learned to practice in short segments, you may choose to only play the one section per practice, then at your next practice session, move on to the next section.
3. One you have finished practicing all the sections, you can now play the piece in its entirety. However, there will always be sections that will give you more trouble than other parts. This is where spot practicing comes into play. Once you have determined the parts that give you trouble (this may be one measure, an entire line or several lines), determine to use your entire practice session to just go over that particular part, and then work outward. For example, let’s say you have one measure that gives you trouble. Play that one measure repeatedly (at least 5 times in a row) until you feel more comfortable with it, then play the measure before and after the troubled measure, than play the entire line. Sometimes the problem is not just that part, but going into and out of that part.
REPEAT TROUBLED SPOTS IMMEDIATELY
The sooner you go back and play the difficult spots again, the more you will retain. Because there are different levels of retention, this is another reason why going back to the very beginning of a piece does not help you correct the errors or improve your playing. For most adults, you can remember the Pledge of Allegiance, because as a child you said it every day for years. So even now when you probably have not said it for a long while, you can still recite it. This is because you have learned it at a deeper level. Practicing a part over and over but doing it consecutively is the best way to retain what you have learned or corrected and sets what you have learned to that same deep level.
Also, play it slowly so that you can do without hesitating or missing the rhythms, than as you get better, begin to increase your tempo each time until you are able to play the correct tempo or speed. For piano students, you can also practice one hand at a time until you have mastered each hand, than play with both hands.
LISTEN TO YOURSELF
For those of you that are taking lessons, imagine that your instructor is there with you when you practice and be critical of your playing the same as your instructor would, hearing her words in your head. I still hear my past instructors every time I practice, telling me things I know he would say if he were listening. I know that while you are learning a piece it’s hard to also hear what you are playing, but as you grow more familiar with the piece, you will be able to do that more and more. And another great way to practice is to record yourself. That is usually the last step I take when learning a piece that I’ll be performing, so I can hear myself better and critique my own playing. You may even want to circle those areas you need to work on (with pencil) on the music so you can remember or make notes.
Of course learning the notes and rhythms to the song is just the beginning of making music. Once you have learned the nuts and bolts of the song, you can then begin to add colour to the music, by using dynamics (varying volumes) and rubato (varying tempos or speeds) as well as phrasing and your interpretation of the music. This is where taking lessons really helps you, so that you have an instructor listening to your playing and able to give you guidance on how to make the music become yours. I believe the music maker is not the composer, but rather the musician who makes the black and white notes on paper come alive. Because of this, we still have the spirit of all the past composers with us still today.To summarize, practice often in short sessions so that you are fresh and retain everything you have learned. When you are learning a new piece, practice short segments of the piece in one practice session, and immediately repeat troubled areas. Listen to yourself when you sing or play and be your own instructor or hear the words of your instructor as you practice. Record yourself so that you can hear yourself better for your final critique. And lastly, add colour, dynamics and your own feelings to make the music yours!
**Note to parents of young children ages 5-7 taking lessons: One thing that I have often heard parents say is they have trouble getting their young child to practice each week for the lesson. One reason that I say only 15 minutes for the practice sessions other than what I have mentioned above are for mental reasons. If you tell a child they only have to practice for a few minutes, it does not seem as difficult and they will be more apt to do that. And you never know, it may turn into more than just a few minutes. The important thing for young children is to keep the practicing element positive and do not worry if they miss some days. Even if they gone all week without practicing, they still learn during the lesson and keeping a consistent weekly lesson is where they will learn and improve over time. Do not expect a young child to learn a lot at the beginning, but let them learn and grow at their own pace. Once they have learned a few things, it will be easier for the student to practice on his/her own. Also, let the young student have the freedom to play around during their practicing. I have seen young kids compose little songs during the practice time, which I think is a great way for them to explore music on their own. If they enjoy doing that and are allowed the freedom, the student will eventually find practicing what they are supposed to an easier thing as he or she develops and grows.