Practicing Is the Key to Learning a Musical Instrument
The Importance of Practicing
So you see a great musician and you wonder how can someone be so good and so talented at something? The answer is easy: practice. Never underestimate the importance of practicing. No one is great at playing a musical instrument unless they have put in the time and effort. It is that simple. Albert Einstein said it perfectly: Genius is 1% talent and 99% hard work.
I have a lot of thoughts about practicing, and more importantly practicing correctly. It is very rare that I go a whole week without being asked the following question: how long should my child practice for? And to be honest, how long one should practice is important, but much more emphasis should be put into the crucial part about practicing: how to practice properly, and what happens in the time allocated to practice.
Practicing gets results.
Here Is a Very Common Practice Mistake
Let’s take a piano student who has had about a year of lessons as an example. A typical new piece will have about 4 lines of music. Let’s say this student has 30 minutes to practice.
Here is perhaps the most common thing a parent will tell their child: “Play through each piece of music that has been assigned to you to practice five times”. Before you know it, the student has spent half an hour “practicing”. What was accomplish in that time? Nothing. Or close to nothing.
The reality is that students will most likely stumble through their music five times and probably not improve their pieces much, if at all. Then they will repeat the same pattern tomorrow, and on each subsequent practice day of the week.
Set Practice Goals
It is extremely important to have a clear, laser-focused, attainable objective before starting to practice. You must know what you are trying to achieve before you begin. Setting clear, realistic, and measurable practice goals will make your practicing much more efficient.
Let’s go back to that piece of music that has 4 lines. It would make more sense to identify the structure and break the piece down in much smaller chunks. A good goal in a practice session might be to learn the first line hands separately. Start by figuring out the right hand, and then the left hand. Don’t even look at the rest of the piece. It is a waste of time to just play through it all when you should be focused on your practice goal of learning the first line. Playing the rest of the piece contributes nothing towards that goal.
Break down the Music
Imagine that instead of stumbling through 4 lines of music five times, you could play the first line 20-30 times in the same amount of practice time. You would actually retain that part of the music. And the bonus is that chances are that 3 of the 4 lines will be very similar, if not identical. So by doing that, you often will have mostly learned 3 of the 4 lines already, which is 75% of the piece.
If the line is too difficult, break down the music even more. Go measure by measure if you have to. There is no chunk of music that is too small to use as a practice session. The important thing is to be logical about it and break down the music in a way that makes sense and is manageable.
Go Slow and Practice Regularly
Almost every student I have ever worked with wants to practice too fast, much too fast. And practicing is often fairly irregular. Here is one very, very important piece of advice: Go slow and practice regularly. Take the time to learn a passage of music properly and slowly, with all the correct movements happening in time. When students practice too fast, they make mistakes, have pauses in the music, and hand movement is not in time. Going slowly and using a metronome will force the performance to be in time and the student will play the music correctly. It is easy to speed up a performance that has been learned correctly. Repetition is key, but it is important to repeat something that is played correctly.
Be Goal-oriented, Be Clear
Instead of being time oriented, be goal-oriented. Be clear. You will accomplish much more that way and your progress will be exponentially faster. You will also instill good habits in your children that can be carried forward in other areas of their lives.
A note or a directive saying “Practice this piece” is meaningless, especially for more beginner students. One of the most important jobs we have as educators or as parents/supporters is to help students understand and develop good practicing habits.
Here is a better approach to help a student practice. Remember to be specific.
- Work on the first line only, hands separately.
- Put your metronome on at quarter note = 80
- Pay attention to the half note and be sure to hold it for 2 beats.
- There is a rest in the left hand at measure 3, be sure not to play the note through the rest.
- Remember to start the first note with finger #2 and that the first note of the song is a Bb.
- You will notice there is a crescendo from bars 4 to 6. Be sure to increase the volume there.
Practicing Is Easier with Goals
The idea is to give specific things to work on and to improve so the student knows exactly what to do. If you have been practicing in a way that is not goal-oriented, it is not too late to change your habits. Go ahead and try, you will be amazed with the results. And you will feel like you have accomplished something each and every time you practice. That should inspire you to do it even more!
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