In Response to "A Better Way To Practice"




     This is a response to an article from LifeHacker.com called "A Batter Way To Practice" that has made a significant change to my practice habits and how I think about music.  I'll be making more responses and observations on other practice articles and theses that seem most beneficial to musicians.

     The people cited say that the amount of time onc practices is dependent on the focus one puts in, which seems obvious, but is taught so little.  It's so prominent in young students to practice this way, and for most teachers, it doesn't seem to be an important part of the curriculum. In the same way that teachers often don't teach how to study, I think that music teachers often don't teach how to practice; the reasons may be that a student will figure it out or that it is forgotten within the teaching of the subject itself, but I feel it is not to be understated.  I had this problem for quite a long time, and especially as much of our culture strives to have people practice longer or "work harder" (as this determines one's skill or ability), this idea of deliberate practice should be as important as the material being taught.  Many of my past school teachers didn't say “you should study as long as it takes so that you can ____”; they said “study ___ hours per subject”. It may be the ease of which numbers can be thrown out, but this is training students to view learning as a punch-card endeavor and not as a process of development independent of time.  When one learns something thoroughly, there is a true sense of accomplishment, and most musicians have experienced this first hand when practicing deliberately.
     I am quite experienced in mindless practice, as my practice sessions for, at the very least, 2 years were structured around slightly mindful repetition, and I always wondered why it never yielded the results I wanted. The analysis is what was lacking, the in-depth analysis. I knew it “sounded bad”, but what does that mean? For all an onlooker knows, it could be a myriad of unrelated problems (poor quality instrument, lack of talent, etc.), and if this thought process perpetuates, one will more and more often go to that excuse and ignore the more real and often more solvable problem. A good idea may be start treating practice time as if trying to teach someone else how to play well. Write down what would be said to them after playing to further try and separate these two selves, as writing helps to expand on problems/solutions, crossing into the visual and kinesthetic aspect of thinking/teaching. Also try and speak these things out loud, to put another perspective on your problem or potential solution.
     Mindless practice is a vehicle to concrete bad habits. This is what goes through my head when I fall into a more automatic, less mindful practice session.  As one looks for the parts of the song that sound “poor”, one only looks by comparison, allowing the poor quality overall to stay while slowly bringing up the music to a low standard repeatedly until reaching the higher one. How long this takes, I don't know, because I had never reached the high standard I sought using this method.  I remember a guest professor at the University of Oregon gave some clinics/classes and one of them was simply called “beautiful”, and in this he said “Make every sound that comes out of your instrument beautiful”. To take it a step further, for every bad sound you make, you are better at making bad sounds. For every good sound you make, you are better at making good sounds.
     Practicing mindfully, and specifically the real-time or short-term analysis of a product, really could revolutionize what a student could accomplish by giving more clear goals to their practice.  This has the potential to remove the dullness from practicing through repetition, introducing exploration and experimentation back into one's practice routine.  The extramusical application seems important as well, engaging the student in a mindful process through their day and using this to improve in whatever activity they engage in using the exact same process.
     In deliberate practice, the author says one needs to break down problems into their most basic components, musical, technical, and mental, and then find solutions for each one, almost as a brainstorm or a map:
  • start with the problem (be very specific),
  • expand on what exactly the problem is and it's causes (again specificity is key),
  • brainstorm solutions.
With a method like this, one practices for short-term and long-term, and allows a more intimate relationship with one's instrument, whatever it may be, and it's possibilities.  To start from a position of refining an idea:
  • What sound/product/feeling do I want specifically?
  • What are some possibilities that will let me achieve that?
  • What will I need to make these possibilities realities?
  • How can I acquire those things?
And in beginning, the problems will be solved using the first method.
     I don't claim to be an expert in this method of practice, but I have seen the benefits in my own practice slowly build.  Applying this method and remembering to do this is difficult because as the author states, it is “extraordinarily easy to drift into mindless practice mode”.  I have printed this out to read before practice every day, taking a cue from my friend Derick Thomas, and foresee this method bringing serious results to my practice sessions.  I hope that this response has helped in possibly clarifying the article and it's practice method.