On the Art of Practicing

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“How do I become a better musician?”

For some reason, people tend to ask me this question a lot, and while my initial thought is I’m honored that you think I know this!, my second thought is usually how am I going to give this person a good answer? I remember being young and working up the courage to ask someone I respected how to be a better fiddler, hoping that they might be able to change my life with their answer. I’m pretty sure I asked this at private lessons, music camps, and really wherever I could, and it invariably came down to the same answer. YOU MUST PRACTICE. 

What’s sad is that same answer that many of us give these eager musicians is often taken as somewhat of a cop-out. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice,” we joke, and the asker’s face often falls perceptibly. While it’s absolutely true that practice does in fact help your playing, we are doing ourselves a disservice if we simply decide that practice means repetition ad nauseam. If you’ve never had a teacher talk to you about how to practice, or you don’t have a teacher at all, you may have goals that you don’t know how to reach, and I’m hoping that something in this column today helps you. 

Now, I’m a firm believer in the concept that one size does not fit all when it comes to music. If a teacher approached a contest prep session with an 15-year old fiddler who had to have 5 or 8 tunes ready for the next month with the same tactics as a lesson with a 85-year old fiddler who wanted to keep their hands and mind limber, neither lesson would be as effective as it could potentially be. Music teachers also know that there are certain students who thrive under very pointed criticism, while others need as much encouragement as you can dole out. We all have our quirks, both musically and mentally, and that’s perfectly alright. 

This also means that one practice schedule does not fit all either! Your musical goals should inform your practicing, but they do not have to seem unreasonable. I’ve heard people whisper “well, I heard that ___________ plays for 5 hours a day,” and that’s all very well and good, but what is accomplished in those 5 hours is ultimately what’s important. For instance, let’s say Player A and Player B have both been assigned by their mandolin teacher to practice the same song for 30 minutes. Player A practices the whole tune through from front to back 10 times and pushes through any execution errors they may have, while player B plays the song through and takes notes of which sections of the melody are tricky, and then repeats those portions over and over before returning to the entire song. To me, that’s the difference between “practice makes perfect” and “perfect practice makes perfect”. Not only does it allow you to focus in on the areas of the tune that may be troublesome, it keeps your mind and body more alert because the monotony of over-repetition hasn’t set in yet.

So how can we start this more thoughtful way of practicing? I’ve devised a set of questions to ask of my students (or even myself) when they are getting in the headspace for practicing, and you are more than welcome to apply these to yourself! Grab a paper and pen and let’s begin:

  • What are my weak areas?

I know, this one isn’t fun! However, you are simply asking yourself this question to keep yourself accountable. It can be as simple as “I need to loosen my wrist” or as complex as “I don’t know how to improvise.”

  • What can I do to improve these areas?

Now that you know what you need to fix, how will you go about doing it? If you’ve found several areas that you feel are lacking, list possible solutions to each of them (e.g. “since my wrist is tight, I will practice in front of a mirror to watch myself and make sure my wrist flows rather than locks.”)

  • What are my short-term musical goals?

I always like having students answer this question since short-term goals are usually the ones that they actually believe they can accomplish. Perhaps Player C feels he won’t really ever get to play his banjo professionally in Nashville, but he knows if he spends some time on it, he can figure out how to feel more comfortable playing in waltz time. Be positive, but also be realistic. 

  • What are my long-term musical goals?

This is the equivalent of the “5-year plan”. Here’s where you write down if you’d like to be able to learn a particular tune, or if you want to someday play the Grand Ole Opry, or if you want to front your own band. Again, this isn’t meant to make you feel bad about where you are right now. This is to inspire you to not become complacent.  

  • What makes me the happiest from a  musical standpoint?

Ultimately, music is meant to be enjoyable, and if you’re only going through the motions while practicing and not having fun, chances are you probably won’t want to stick with it. Always include something fun in your practice schedule even if it’s something that you feel you’ve figured out. It’s important to celebrate small victories!

Once you’ve figured out these things, decide how much time you need to practice and begin scheduling these sessions into your day. Everyone’s schedules are different, and there is not one correct answer. Ultimately, if you’re making progress, excellent. Keep it up. Keep yourself accountable, and you will see progress over time if you don’t give up. After all, dear readers, I wouldn’t tell you so if I didn’t believe it!

Happy practicing! 

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