Most people think when it comes to practicing their instrument that it’s all about getting the notes under their fingers. People forget what controls the fingers: the brain! This needs as much work to improve your technical and musicianship skills as does repeatedly playing things over and over. In fact, sometimes there is little or no need to repeat things too much. It can, in fact, make things worse. Think of the following saying:
Practice makes perfect.
Does practice actually make perfect? The saying should read more like this:
Practice makes permanent.
Whatever your repeat will become a habit. If you practice something wrong then you will always play it wrong! In order for ‘practice to make perfect’ we have to alter the saying again:
Perfect practice makes perfect.
So, how do we practice perfectly? It’s all about engaging the brain and using different strategies to get the most out of your practice. If you do it right, you can spend less time on practicing and gain more skills. Sounds impossible? Try out some of the ideas below and see how they work for you.
But it’s too hard!
Are you playing a piece and there’s that nagging bit that’s just too hard? Do you kind of just brush over it as you’re playing, hoping that it will fix itself? Do you play a song from the beginning and then when you get to the hard bit, try it, fail and go back to the beginning again? We’re all guilty of this way of practicing at one time or another but it really doesn’t help us get anywhere. It’s time to pick the problem apart and get it fixed. With the right attitude there will be no more, “But it’s too hard!”
Try breaking the problem area into chunks. Where exactly do you slip up and why. Is a certain fingering making it difficult? Can you play the note with a different finger or in a different place? Do you sometimes slip up before you get to the tricky bit? Are you worrying about it before you get there?
Experiment with different ways of playing it. Think of the hard part as a problem to solve.
How slow can you go?
What is this obsession with speed? Everybody wants to shred and they want to do it now!
I’ve seen it many times in my teaching studio. Students can rip through a piece of music at breathtaking speed. However, it usually sounds sloppy and not very musical. When I ask them to slow it down to a speed where they can play it accurately, they can’t. In order to play it slowly, they have to relearn the piece again, doubling the amount of work needed to play it properly.
If you start learning a new song slowly, you have time to think about all the things that will eventually become automatic. For example, what finger to use where and which string to pick. Some of these things might already be automatic, but by thinking carefully about them when you start something new you can pick out any technical problems before they become a habit. We all know bad habits can be hard to unlearn!
Be careful though! Make sure the techniques you use will be usable at faster speeds. It might be easy to play a note with a certain finger when you are playing slowly but will that same finger work when you speed it up? Always be mindful of the performance speed of the piece when practicing slowly.
Ok, so you’ve started learning something new. You’ve played it slowly. Broken it down into chunks. Found the tricky bits and figured out how to play them but something is still going wrong! That unusual fingering you have to remember; sometimes you remember it, sometimes you don’t and it’s driving you mad! It’s time to start thinking ahead.
The idea is that while you are playing a bar/phrase you are thinking about the next bar/phrase so you’re mentally ready for it when it comes. It sounds difficult but once you get into the habit of doing it, it’s not actually as bad as you think. It gives you the chance to prepare/remember the dodgy fingerings or rhythms, or whatever keeps tripping you up.
Try having a go at thinking ahead every time you practice. Do it for short bursts at first and then try it for longer periods of time. After a while, it won’t tire you out and it will become automatic.
The ideas above are just a few examples of the tricks you can have up your sleeve while practicing. Remember, nothing compares to getting some expert advice if you are having problems. A teacher is always the best way forward. If there isn’t a teacher near you, you can always contact me for Skype/FaceTime lessons!
The main thing is to enjoy what you do and keep practicing!
Do you have any comments on this article? If so, please feel free to comment below. The more we can help each other out, the better the musicians we will become.