Updated: Oct 31, 2020
It has been said many a time that 'practice makes perfect'. As horrendous as that statement sounds, it is true.
Good practice, however, has, by and large, been erroneously perceived; many subscribe to the view that it has to do with the quantity of hours one puts into playing their specific instrument but this view is surely untrue for it has been observed that many times, a student of his or her instrument has found themselves to be practicing from one to ten hours in an attempt to master a piece of music. They, in an attempt to iron out their mistakes for a smooth run from a to b in their piece, mindlessly and repetitively practice that same old tricky phrase that they cannot seem to master 10- 12 times in the same hour, desperately trying to get both hands to co-ordinate, and play in time with the metronome marking, whilst adhering to the marked dynamics and articulation to little or no avail. This matter of practice is really a most frustrating and infuriating thing.
The creativity post highlight three particular forms of practice that students of their given instrument most commonly fall into when attempting to craft musical pieces they are learning.
Broken record method: this is when you repeat the same passage over and over again with no tangible improvement. Someone once said, "insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results". This quote is really the diagnosis of those students who practice in the broken record format.
Autopilot method: this is when we play a piece we are learning on 'automatic pilot'. We simply play, with accurate or inaccurate notes, without one conscious thought about the whole process. It is simply an automatic motor action like brushing your teeth or combing your hair. This is problematic because it causes the performer to become blind to the technicality, musicality and accuracy of the piece of music being learned.
Hybrid method: a combination of the broken record and auto pilot method you play through your piece until you hear something strange and then repeat that musical excerpt until the hiccups are neatly hidden under the carpet of your musical delusion. (Creativity Post. 2012)
I would like to summarise the above approaches as examples of 'mindless practice', a term I borrow from Dr. Kageyama, a performance psychologist. He recommends that practice ought to be systematic and structured, he even employs the term scientific. I am inclined to agree, upon observations of students and myself, I find that oftentimes, we are in too much of a hurry to learn a piece, be done with it and learn a new one.
We are too influenced by the slot machine concept- learn the notes, push the right buttons and get the product selected. This idea is, however a most detrimental one to hold, whether it be held consciously or subconsciously, for it strips music of its beauty, its purpose and its journey. Music is about a journey, even from its conception.
Chopin was often noted for only allowing his students to play only a few measures of musical material to him in a lesson before he would interrupt with some sound wisdom regarding the tone colour or articulation. Why? Chopin recognised the importance of very detailed, thorough and musical learning strategy (Hopkins. Anthony. 1967).
We must be systematic and learn to think when we practice. Performer and composer, Stephen Hough, exhorts us to "be the bohemian on the stage and the musicologist in the practice room." In other words, save the performance for it’s perfected manifestation, where people can come to hear this product of hard work and beauty that you have spent many hours perfecting and purifying for your enjoyment and theirs. Systematic practice makes the performance at the end of learning a piece a lot more rewarding and enjoyable.
Here a few tips from a letter Busoni wrote in 1898 of which I have omitted some points and adapted others, mixed in with a few tips of my own-
Practice the passage with the most difficult fingering; when you have mastered that, play it with easiest.
For technically challenging passages- look for passages with similar difficulty in this way you will bring system into the kind of playing in question.
Always bring the interpretative aspect of music practice in connection to the technical aspect- most difficulty in performance are concerned with dynamic shading.
Never play carelessly, even when there is no one is listening.
Never leave unsuccessful passages without analysing and repeating until passage can be played accurately and a goal has been reached.
If you cannot play a passage of music effectively in front of others, strive to analyse what you are playing in more detail to ensure that you are fully aware of what is taking place theoretically, mechanistically and dynamically at this point of stumbling. If you still struggle to play in front of others after such steps, consider applying a form of practice throughout the week where you are exposed to onlookers, a mirror or a camera to help you become more accustomed to performing in front of an audience.
If you wish to learn more about some practicing problems click here.
Creativity Post. (2012). Deliberate Practice vs. Mindless Practice. Available: https://ddcolrs.wordpress.com/2012/07/29/deliberate-practice-vs-mindless-practice/. Last accessed 06.11.17.
Hopkins. A. (1967). Etude. In: Music all around me. London: Leslie Frewin Publishers Limited. p46-49.
Hough. S. (2014). On Practice of Practicing. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VGBIgsoM4ng. Last accessed 06.11.17.
Kageyama. N. (). How many hours a day should you practice. Available: https://bulletproofmusician.com/how-many-hours-a-day-should-you-practice/. Last accessed 07.11.17.
If you are a guitar student you can find a fantatic piece of material with analogous impact in your practising at https://theguitarscout.com/get-better-at-playing-guitar/