What Practice Is. What Playing Is.
Let’s get a few things clear right from the start. Practicing and playing are not the same thing. I think both are important in a musicians development but a distinction needs to be made. Practice is making the decision to improve something specific in your playing. Playing can be anything from jamming your favorite song of the moment, noodling a few notes from a scale, lick, or song, or it could be making noise with no focus whatsoever. Practice is narrowing your focus to a specific goal or set of goals and maintaining a focus only on that goal. Playing doesn’t need to have a goal other than getting your instrument in your hands and getting it to make sounds.
To put it another way, practice is playing with the intent of improving an element of ones musicianship. This is where many people go astray.
Here’s a typical scenario. A music student goes to take a lesson. The teacher says, “Here’s some music to go home and practice.” The student goes home and tries to play the assigned music. Since the student doesn’t really know how to practice they never quite get it just right. They go back to the teacher and the teacher says “OK, well you need to practice some more. Here’s another song to work on.” The student works on another song that they don’t quite get. Now the student can sort of play two songs. By this point they are no longer practicing when they play these songs. They’re just playing, and perhaps what they play doesn’t sound so hot.
Perhaps the student starts to feel like they’re not really good at music. They feel like they’re missing some ingredient in their DNA that prevents them from playing well. An unfortunate and pervasive notion in society today. At this point the student may not strive to go much further with their music. Maybe they keep learning songs but they never understand the method to improve their skills. Maybe they give up altogether.
I took several lessons with guitarists that I admired and not one of them told me how to get better. I even had one tell me that my left hand technique needed work but made no mention of what was wrong and how I should fix it. In fact, my first few banjo lessons were exactly like how I described in the above scenario. I learned all the material as best I could but I had no idea how to practice it “properly.”
How did the folks I went to for lessons learn to play so well? Perhaps these teachers simply didn’t know how to practice either. It is possible they had been taught so well they never got into any of the “bad habits” you so often hear about. Good practice was elementary to them and how to practice seemed obvious and not worth mentioning. Perhaps they just weren’t good communicators. Or maybe they just flat out didn’t care whether their music students learned how to play well or not.
The thing about music is that getting better at playing music means you have to get better at practicing music. They are the same thing. If you don’t learn how to practice better you won’t play better. It’s very simple really. A devotion to improving your playing should start with a decision to understanding what practice is and what the best way to approach it is.
It is absolutely possible to get better at music every time you practice. Every time. You start your practice at point A and when you get to point B you have somehow improved your playing. It’s that “somehow” stuff I hope to shed some light on. I know I was frustrated for years. I worked harder and harder but somehow my playing just kind of stayed the same.
Practicing should place a great deal of focus on elements of your music that are not good. Things that are in need of improvement. It can be great fun to sit down and play a song you’ve played a hundred times before but it’s not practice. Practice goes after weak points, reinforcing what you already play well won’t improve you as a musician.
Practicing is a constantly evolving process. It should not be the same each time. To grow you need to keep tweaking and adjusting your routine. In fact practice should never be considered routine. It’s about evaluating where you are musically and making an honest assessment of what you need to do to get where you want to go. Then move in that direction.
To make continued improvements in one’s playing one needs to make continued improvements in one’s practicing. But how? The next 6 chapters will lay out what I consider to be key elements of practicing. They are:
1. Playing with ease.
2. Goal setting
3. Knowing where your fingers go.
4. Developing muscle memory.
5. Polishing things up
These are not presented in order of importance as they are all equally important. However, I feel that in learning how to practice this is an appropriate progression. Feel free to jump around as you need to while learning about these concepts but remember that to practice well (and ultimately play well) you’ll need to pull all these concepts together into a cohesive whole.
For now let’s sum up.
· Your practice habits need to equal your goals.
· Become of aware of when you’re practicing and when you’re playing. These two things are different. They’re both important but a distinction should be made.
· Improving at music every time you practice is possible with a thoughtful approach.
· Practicing spotlights elements of playing that are weak and in need of improvement.
· The rules for practicing are the same for the virtuoso and the amateur. There is a right way to do things and a wrong way. Make a choice to practice the right way and you’ll always improve.