The Art of Practice
Updated: Jun 3, 2022
We all know that we need to practice if we want to get good at something. Seems simple enough, right? But in reality, how many of you have actually been taught how to practice?
Do you just play your piece from top to bottom without stopping, maybe fudging your way through just to get to the end and then stop, calling that half-hearted attempt practice?
Maybe you’re a music college student, proudly gloating about the fact you’ve done five hours practice on a given day, but in actual fact, if you look closely at those five hours much of the time was spent being distracted on your phone, waffling though technical exercises, or playing the bits you know you can play in a solo you’re preparing for a competition.
Staggeringly, I went through a Bachelor’s degree, and even a Master’s degree not really being taught how to practice (of course I received stellar tuition in music, and how to play the tuba). It wasn’t until I arrived in the army when I was taught by the former London Symphony Orchestra principal tubist, Patrick Harrild, that I was taught how to be methodical and focussed in my practice.
What is practice? I found a quote recently that sums it up: “The art of practicing is the process for repetition without boredom”. All credit to Penelope Trunk for that gem! So how can we practice without boredom? First and foremost, it’s useful to know that science has found humans can focus solidly on a monotonous task for roughly twenty minutes before concentration wanes, and distraction sets in. We should therefore approach our practice in twenty-minute chunks, and follow up with a ten minute break to refresh and 'reset'. This will keep our concentration in check, minimise any physical injuries that could occur from repetitive strain....and gives you time to check your Facebook notifications!
“But Callum, twenty minutes doesn’t seem like long when I have so much to practice.” Well, suck it up, nugget! There’s always something to practice, and no matter your field of work the same rings true: "too much to do, too little time"! However with music, the reality is that the fastest way is the slow way.
Each practice chunk you allow yourself in a given day needs to have a target, a goal. You may want to spend twenty minutes sorting out three or four tricky bars in a solo, or you may wish to practice double tonguing scales, or practice your harmonics if you’re a string player. The other day I spent four twenty minutes chunks working on two lines of Csardas trying to build speed. I started at 80bpm and increased it to 110bpm in that time. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s progress in the right direction. The point is, in each of those twenty minutes, I knew precisely what I was wanting to look at, and what I wanted to try and achieve. Cumulatively over time, practising like this you'll find that your ability to identify problems, troubleshoot them, and work through them gets quicker and quicker - you'll soon be learning new concerto weekly (I exaggerate. You may find it takes only three months as opposed seven months).
Now that we’ve sorted out practice time, the following few pointers will hopefully help you structure the way you practice in the time that you have given yourself.
1) Keep a practice journal. How can you measure progress if you can’t remember what you did the last time you practiced? Clock the tempo you’ve achieved, the bars you’ve practiced, note the bits you kept fluffing up, and importantly, praise the bits you did well – be highly critical of what you’re doing, but don’t forget to praise yourself where praise is due. It’s too easy to criticise yourself, and that can lead to mental health issues.
2) Set little, achievable goals for every practice session. Little goals make the big goals happen!
3) Be diligent in your practice. If you make a mistake whilst playing, stop, and start again. If you don’t, you’ll only reinforce the mistake into your playing, and we don’t want that. The international tuba soloist, Oystein Baadsvik, once told me that when he practiced, he would put ten pennies on his music stand. Every time he played a passage flawlessly, he would move a penny to the other side of the stand until he had managed to play the passage ten times pristinely. The catch was, whenever he made a mistake, he would have to start all over again – annoying if you managed nine times without a mistake, eh?! Be diligent and maintain your integrity. Don’t lie to yourself, if it’s wrong, it’s wrong. Lets practice getting it right!
4) Practice little and often, with intent, and focus.
5) Commit to your practice. What I mean by this is that practicing is a heck of a lot easier if you’re in the habit of practicing little and often. Plan it into your day, and don’t cancel that plan - no one likes to cancel plans with their significant other, why should you treat your practice any differently?!
It takes twenty-one days for a habit to form, so commit to your practice, make a schedule that you can stick to, and once it’s become habit, practice time will be as easy as breathing (which, btw, I’ve done a blog on breathing if you’re interested?! https://www.callumrookes.com/post/the-importance-of-breathing).
6) On any given practice day, you should rest at least as much as you practice e.g twenty minutes practice followed by twenty minutes rest.
7) Give yourself permission to have a day off. This is something I really struggled with at music college. I always felt that if I wasn’t practicing, I wasn’t improving. But actually, having a day off allows you to mentally recharge and come back to practice with a renewed focus. Not to mention, having a day off allowed me to look after my mental health aswell.
Those that know me, know I like the gym. In the gym world, I have always been told that building muscle happens outside of the gym after we've worked them hard, and your body needs to rest and recover. Over time, this leads to your body growing and getting stronger. With this logic, apply it to music. We need the rest to fully assimilate our practice sessions, and recover.
8) Finally, everyone says “practice makes perfect”. Nonsense! Practice makes permanent. So if you play mindlessly, carelessly, and don’t correct your mistakes, then you will play like a mindless, careless, mistake-ridden-mess!
There’s no magic formula for getting good, and I’m a believer that talent isn’t born, it’s built. So practice intelligently, with purpose, with clear aims, and always remember that the player you are tomorrow is crafted by how you practice today!
Practice well my friends!