I was recently teaching a private lesson to a student who wants to get a college degree in music. I’ll call him Brad. Brad was working on an etude and has been for the last 6 weeks. When I originally gave it to him I had honestly expected it to take 2 weeks, maybe 3 at the most. It was a technical etude, but not in a challenging key, and was just a steady stream of notes. It wasn’t meant to turn into a huge project – the goal was to get it learned, work on some speed and facility issues and move on. But after 6 weeks he couldn’t even make it even half way through without crashing and it was only a few clicks faster than the tempo he sightread it at.
After week 3 I started to try and figure what was wrong. I went through my usual diagnostics and problem solving. We played through pieces of it together and worked on efficient fingerings. I thought perhaps I had assigned him too much material to work on and so I assigned smaller chunks. We talked about practice time and goals of the etude. It didn’t seem to help – he played the 12 bars I had assigned only marginally better then the week prior. I really started to worry.
So, after week 5, I asked specifically about his practice time. He estimated that he spent 2-3 hours on those 12 bars, with a total practice time of about 8 hours for the week. Yikes! Even if he was “generously estimating” his time, those 12 bars should have been killer after that much time. So the issue wasn’t getting into the practice room. He was putting in the time. So what was the issue? That’s when it dawned on me… Brad didn’t have any idea HOW to practice.
I’d like to say I was surprised, but I’ve found over the years that few students really know how to effectively practice. (Sadly, there’s a lot of teachers out there that don’t know how to teach effective practicing either.) There is a variety of reasons for this. Some simply don’t want to practice. Some don’t make the time. Some feel like the process is too slow or takes too much time. Some would rather just run through things and get the gist of it. Others fear putting that much work into something and not having the work pay off. Some just don’t have any clue how to practice. Some have played well enough to get by without practicing. The list continues…
But eventually music students who are serious run out of excuses and reasons not to practice, and come to terms with the fact that they will have to practice if they really want to make it as a musician. Then they have to figure out HOW.
Learning how to practice is a life-long process too. I’m always being introduced to new ways of approaching things and I’m always eager for them. Some of my favorite conversations with professional musicians friends of mine has been about practicing.
My personal wake-up call came about half way through college. Up until that point, I sight-read most of my lessons, never practice any band music, and really never felt the need to start practicing. But by that time, I was screwed. It took me a long time to figure out how to practice and even longer to get any good at practicing. There was a long period of time where I didn’t enjoy practicing. But once I figured it out and started to see real measurable progress, I was hooked. I love practicing now. I love learning something new and working on something until I get it. I feel a huge sense of accomplishment and pride. I feel confident and curious. I know when I know something and frankly, that’s really cool. It’s one of the reasons I am able to problem solve with my students really well… I’ve lived through learning how to practice and the struggles, frustrations, and heartache that comes a long with it.
My student, Brad had his “tough love” lesson where I had him play the same bar 50 times as we slowly crept up the tempo (and got it to improve over 40 clicks!) and we talked about how to correctly practice. Unfortunately, he came back the following week having worked on only 4 bars and even those weren’t at the level I expected. I will continue to help Brad figure out HOW to practice, but there is fast coming a point where he will have all the tools and it will be up to him to decide whether or not to use them.
Once you know how to practice, you have to make the decision to always practice that way. There are no short cuts and the great musicians have accepted that. Talk to any really great musician and they are still practicing, learning, taking lessons, attending master classes and working hard to get better. The best musicians are never done.
Tell me your story – when did you discover a love for practicing? Or are you still on a quest?
Got a question about practicing? Ask me in the comments below!
Here’s a link to my Practice Tips from my Private Studio website. Hopefully you will find some of them useful. What’s your own practice tips? Please share!