Become a better musician: No substitute for practice

Keep going, remember to think about your grip and by the time you're five you'll be cooking

Practice is a means to an end, playing well, and it is a vital component to reach that end. I don’t think I have ever met a musician who I thought was a great player who didn’t practice and practice effectively.

When I first went to conservatory I would stumble around in awe of all the amazingly talented people I was surrounded by. They seemed like a different species to me. After a while I was able to hear some stratification of ability between these brilliant musicians and I noticed that the better ones (in relative terms they were all amazing players) practiced a lot and practiced effectively.

Regular practice is the key to the door. If you don’t do that you can’t even gain entry to the temple of Euterpe but to really become good, Manuel Barrueco good, you’ve got to practice effectively. It’s not enough to just punch the clock and lather, rinse, repeat. Getting better demands that you pay attention to what and how you practice too.

Identifying specific element that you want to improve is important whether it’s a technical element or a piece. If you keep practicing that thing you can do well you’re not getting much return on your effort. There’s less room to get better there than there is working on things you can’t yet do so well.

This happened at conservatory too. I would hear the halls echoing with someone banging out a Rachmaninov Prelude and sounding great, but after a while you could notice the same musician playing the same piece over and over. Sometimes a few doors away you could hear another musician trudging through arpeggios or working on a technique like their trill. It didn’t sound so impressive but it served them better in the long run. Being great at playing one thing is no bad thing but it’s not the same as being a good musician.

Practicing is not the same thing as playing. Cranking through your repertoire of pieces isn’t effective practice. It won’t do you any harm, but to build a strong foundation of facility and technique requires thought about who you are and where you are as a musician. Try to identify where you are now as a player and where you want to get to. What can’t you do yet as well as the players you admire? That’s where to put the effort in.

Work on the stuff you’re not good at most of the time. This can seem demoralising in the short term. No-one likes to sound bad, but over a longer time-scale you will reap the benefits. Try making a simple recording of yourself practicing your toughest piece/exercise/technique once a month. If you’re putting in the work regularly you’ll notice a big improvement in no time. On a dark day when it feels like you’re all thumbs listen to a recording from a couple of months ago and compare where you are now with where you were then.

Practice is beneficial no matter what kind of music you play. It’s not just about classical music, but classical music values virtuosity more than most genres of music, at least the kind of explicit virtuosity that comes from hours of practicing. No matter what you play there are ways to do it better. It doesn’t have to be flashy stuff that you work on but there is always something to improve.

Some simple tips:

Regular practice matters

You will get better returns from 10 minutes every day than an hour once a week as long as you use those 10 minutes well.

Break it down into bite-sized morsels

Work on small sections, half a bar or even a beat is fine for complicated passages, and always include the note before and the note after the passage. At some point you’re going to link it all together.

Start slow

Play what you’re working on really slowly at first and build up gently. The faster you want to get a passage the slower you should start. Tempi below 50 BPM are fine.

Don’t practice mistakes

If something keeps falling apart don’t just plough the furrow of failure. Slow it down or work on smaller chunks until you can play it. Repeat successes.

Pay attention to your body

Think about the position of your body as you play. Think about the relative position of your instrument to your body. Think about how playing feels and try to stay relaxed.

If it hurts then stop

The feeling of a stretch is fine and even a bit of fatigue in your muscles, but if you feel any sharp pains particularly in your wrists or forearms stop for a while. Tendonitis is no joke.

There is a reason for all this work. Practice is the time to think about  and work on technique so that when you go out to play you don’t have to. Charlie Parker said,

“You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.”

A disclaimer and some biography

I have no intention of setting myself up as an example to anyone. This issue has been on my mind recently because I am trying to reawaken some dormant skills. I have spent a long time not playing much at all and recovering lost facility is going to require lots of time in the woodshed. I have been very lucky to get to spend time around lots of good musicians though and I have watched them work and talked to them about how they work.

The image practice makes perfect by sierraromeo [sarah-ji] is used under a Creative Commons License

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Ruben Kenig

I used to play punk, then jazz. Somehow I went to music school to study composition. I wrote music and made sound design for theatre and studied film music. In the interstitial spaces of this I made websites as a content manager and project manager. I sometimes publish articles at rubken.net.