There is no doubt that learning to play and continually developing new skills on a musical instrument is hard. It requires hours of dedication and diligent practice, however despite this many musicians, including myself, have fallen into the trap of practicing in a very ineffective way. In this weeks blog I try and address those ineffective methods and provide useful tips that I personal wish I had heard a lot earlier.
One of the biggest mistakes that musicians make when it comes to practicing is practicing without purpose. They decide to practice whatever they feel like in the moment, they learn half a song one day and then try developing technique the next. This approach will lead to little development and will result in the player having a large number of half learnt skills. This is why it is important to have specific goals in mind to inform your practice routines. It is well worth using the acronym SMART to help inform your goal setting.
Create a Structured Practice Routine
Setting yourself goals is certainly important when it comes to developing effective practice, however setting goals is no good if you then practice aimlessly. It is therefore important that you come up with a set number of tasks and exercises that you will do in your practice session that will work you towards your goal.
For example, if one of your goals is to play a certain lick or sequence faster you would create an exercise such as playing the sequence to a metronome at a very slow speed and over a number of practice sessions you will gradually increase the speed of the metronome. You will come up with a number of these for each of your goals. Some goals may only require one exercise whilst others may require a few different exercises. Once you have laid out your exercises you can then look at how long you would like to practice for each day and then divide the practice session into set periods to tackle each area. So if you had a 1-hour practice session and 4 different exercises, you would divide up the practice session into 15 minute chunks. The key now is to stick to that plan until you have achieved your desired goal.
A common mistake many musicians make when it comes to practice is not practicing regularly enough. Some aspiring musicians will believe that if they do one marathon 4-hour practice session a week that they will improve quickly. This is far from the case. We learn new skills through our brain’s ability to create neural pathways, once a neural pathway is created it can be fired to allow the quick and unconscious execution of the skill. These pathways develop much quicker from more regular shorter practice sessions. Doing a marathon practice session only once a week may result in you seeing gains within the practice session but by the next practice session the skills you will have learnt will likely be forgotten. It is much better to practice every day for 10 minutes than to do long irregular sessions, so if you have not already, start building the habit with a regular short practice session; If you want to do longer practice sessions, slowly increase the length of your practice session over time to help maintain the habit.
Practicing music can be a very intensive task that requires high levels of concentration for long periods. However, our ability to focus on tasks can diminish over a period of time and can therefore effect our ability to make sufficient gains in our playing. This is due to to an effect called Vigilance Decrement where over time the brain dedicates less cerebral resources to a particular task (more information here). This effect is particularly true for those who are doing very long practice sessions that are well over an hour in length. Taking breaks can help offset Vigilance Decrement whilst allowing our brains to absorb the information from the exercises you have been working on. After a short break you can start practicing again fully refreshed with your full attention.
When we play we often find that we a focussing on a lot of things, the movement of our bodies, what we are about to play, what is going on with the music, staying in time and many more. With that in mind it is not surprising that some of the finer details of the sound and technique of our playing might go unnoticed.
So what is the best way to get around this problem? Record yourself playing. Buy doing this you will be able to hear any problems with pitch, rhythm and tone without the distractions that comes with playing. It is even better if you can record yourself with a video as being able to see you’re the elements you use to play your instrument such your hands, arms, feet and face can help you to diagnose problems with your technique that might be holding you back.
Once you have identified problems with your playing you can then make adjustments to your goals and practice to help address these problems.
Use a Metronome
For a tool that many proficient musicians see as vital to one’s ability to play well it surprising just how often some musicians completely forget to use of even avoid the use of a metronome. Some musicians hold the false belief that metronomes will result in a lack of feel, and though a metronome has a boring, lifeless and a somewhat annoying sound this could not be further from the truth. Music relies the musicians being in synch with one another whilst playing with a regular time and a consistent groove and as simple as it is, a metronome is the best way to develop this skill. Metronomes are also a vital tool for helping instrumentalists develop speed. It is important to use a metronome wherever possible; there are of course occasions where using a metronome is not important, say for example you are playing to a backing track or you are trying to nail the fingering to a particular piece without having to be tied to a rhythm, but for the most part a metronome is your best friend and an amazing tool.
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