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Practice Doesn't Make Perfect



It's pretty much a universal truth; practice makes perfect. Musicians know all too well that if you want to master your art, there is no substitute for practice. The problem is that this statement is much too vague.

The Blind Leading...

Just blindly practicing without thought can do more damage than good. Thinking that you can just show up and go through the motions can install false hope and produce unrealistic expectations. It also may cause doubt and pain after a huge investment in time and money is made and there are no results or improvement. There are right ways to practice and wrong ways to practice. There are wrong ways to learn and wrong ways to work. You can actually practice hard everyday and not accomplish very much at all. The student who practices wrong may be doing more damage than good; wasting years of time and effort practicing the wrong things over and over. Or, they may be going through the motions of practicing without making any effort or challenging themselves at all. Essentially, it's not enough to just sit down and practice, you must make sure that you are going about it the right way.

Why Are We Here?

While this may seem obvious at the outset, a lot of students will go about practicing without thought to why they are doing it in the first place. Some musicians have the really bad habit of practicing certain skills without too much thought about proper fingering or technique. People like to practice the same material and skills over and over. Learning new skills and keeping yourself challenged takes some discipline. Keeping on track with planning, execution and periodic self assessment is hard. It seems so much easier just to get to it; even when we know better. If may be as simple as not looking forward enough to see how much could be gained by some planning and discipline.


The Two Finger Approach

A lot of the time, making that initial investment seems like more trouble than its worth,. We're simply too lazy, can't be bothered and just want to get down to the task at hand. There are some skills that people don't take the time to learn even though the investment would be quite small in comparison to the time and money saved. The best analogy of this is the simple task of typing. Many people spend most of their day on their computer yet never learn to type. Even though it will save them a huge amount of time in the long run, they never take the time to learn and practice the skill properly. Some people go through an entire lifetime typing with two fingers. If they took the time to learn the skill in the first place, with regular practice they could double their typing speed in a relatively short time. The best part is that this is a skill that will stick with you the rest of your life. With a little concentrated effort and planning you may achieve much more in a significantly less amount of time. When you take the time to learn the proper technique, you will only get better with time. It's a good idea to think about this when planning your practice regimen. Think about what it is you want to learn and how (or who to go to) would be the best way to go about it.

Do You Have One?

First of all, how many musicians do you think actually have a practice regimen? By that I mean a specific time set apart where the musician will sit down and follow a charted course of lessons and exercises. How many musicians a) practice simply when they have a spare moment or just whenever they feel like it? b) actually take notes during their practice sessions? c) record their practice sessions and periodically review their progress? Working at something without actually charting your progress seems ludicrous. Can you imagine practicing a sport without taking the time to measure your progress and results? Yet how many musicians do this? How many musicians take a haphazard approach to practicing, writing, technique and their overall progress? As a student of any other activity, you would never do this.


General Rules

I'm going to go over some general rules to always keep in mind when sitting down to practice. These principles can also be applied to any endeavor which takes daily, regimented action.

Always do the following when sitting down to practice.
  • relax and focus on the task at hand
  • be mindful about what you're doing and why 
  • review what you did in the last session
  • plan for the practice session
  • work on problem areas
  • work on new skills and ideas
  • take notes
  • stretch and challenge yourself daily
  • use a timer
  • include warm ups and fundamental exercises
  • make notes for next session
While this may seem like it would be a chore to do and hard to implement, it's actually like most other learned behaviours. Once you do it a couple of times, it becomes easier to do. After an extended period of time it will become automatic. It actually saves a lot of time and takes a lot of the guess work out of what you're trying to do. It's easier to stay on track because it's all right in front of you. There is little guess work. It may be hard for a lot of easy going, artistic personalities to get into such a regimen but once you stick with it for a while and start seeing results quite quickly, your attitude may change.

The Big Review

You're going to have to sit down periodically and do an overall review. These reviews serve two purposes. First of all it gives you a good idea of what you've done and what you want to accomplish. That way you can make sure that you're working on things that are going to get you where you want to go. With music, there are so many skills and things to learn that it becomes easy to work on many different things. It's easy to get into a whole set of skills that aren't related to what you wanted to accomplish in the first place. It gives you something to measure as far as seeing if you are actually moving toward your goal.

Secondly it also helps in motivation and keeping on track. It's all too easy to lose your place or even worst, lose your motivation when practicing. This after all, is just you. You have to try and be objective about what you've learned and if you're making any progress. If you've taken the time to write down what you want to accomplish, you can later go back and see if you've done what you've set out. A lot of the students I have taught get excited when they see the results in their playing. Sometimes, it's as simply as recognizing a chord progression on the radio, but once there are measurable results, it gives up the motivation to stick with it. There are always periods of what seems like no growth at all but then there are always moments of a-ha where you realize that have improved or accomplished something significant.

The Big Plan

One of the things that's important to do before you even start a practice regimen is figure out what it is you want to accomplish. Write down what specific skills you'd like to learn and what the big plan is. It should be within a given time frame. This could be a year or 6 months or even 3 months. Don't worry about being too accurate with your time frame if you're just starting out with a new skill. For a beginner this would include learning to play an instrument for an intermediate musician, it may be earning to write a symphony. You won't know how long this is going to take. As you get going with your regimen though, you should do a review after a couple of months. From this you will be able to tell if you're improving and it may give you a better idea of your time frame and how long it may take to learn a new skill.

Check, Check

You must make sure that you are checking your results and always striving to get better. It's possible to keep going over the same things and think that you are practicing but you're not. This is when people seem to hit that 'ceiling' and can't seem to improve. When learning new skills you may have to get 'worst' before you get better. There's the idea that mastering a skill takes 10 years but it's possible that you could work on something for a decade or more and see very little results. It's also possible for someone with a set plan, with the right materials and work ethic, to master something in a fraction of that time.