How to Practise Music
Created | Updated Mar 19, 2015
Thinking of taking up a musical instrument? Enjoy it! The satisfaction to be had is endless: 'such pleasure that pleasure is not the word'1.
Here are some pointers to help you along the way.
Practice Makes Perfect
We know that all musical systems (Kodály, Suzuki and the rest) agree about one basic thing: 'repeat many times'. Well, that's not quite the whole story. We see people walking down the street who are not becoming better walkers every day; some are getting worse, despite their daily practice. There are other factors.
The three principal factors determining the value of your practice are...
It's never too early, or too late, to practise a piece of music; but only perfect practice makes perfect. However, a session can still be perfect even if it's:
- very short
- too easy
- very slow, or
- months since your last practice.
It cannot be perfect if it's:
- unhopeful, or
Practice is wasted if you rehearse your mistakes.
Think it ten times, then play it once.
Before you do anything, don't do it! Pause and consider: always know in sufficient detail what you are about to do. Thinking it through is the hard part; if that weren't so, conducting would be easy (it's not).
Most practice time is wasted. This observation is subjective, but a walk outside any school practice rooms will reinforce it. What you hear is the equivalent of actors forcefully stammering their parts.
Think of cycling. Try this next time you are on your bike: instead of pushing harder on the down stroke, lift your rising foot more smartly, so that it puts no weight on the upstroke. Magically, your feet go round faster with no more pressure! What happens to the unthinking, what makes people expend more effort than they need to in walking, cycling, or practising, can be called 'trudging'. Don't trudge; step lightly.
Slow down as danger (that is, a spot where you have stumbled once) approaches. Stop before, not after, making a mistake. This is perhaps the single most effective change you can make to your practising habits.
Forfeits and Rewards
It is perfectly good strategy to deceive yourself into good behaviour. Your reluctance and other inhibiting habits will be exploited by the force of negativity, your sidetracking demon. You will always have some other thing to do, which can appear delightfully attractive when your music hits problems. You can do many things to fool your demon; for instance, use dice and cards, or give yourself tiny rewards.
Cards can be used if you have a long list of scales to learn: write their names on an old incomplete pack of cards, draw one2 each day. You can incorporate bonuses (a free day!) for fun.
Throw a die to vary the daily fare: for part or all of your session the following options, or others, could apply:
- six: solve a single technical problem in a piece
- five: refresh or memorise an old piece
- four: read through something new
- three: metronome practice
- two: tone production
- one: free choice
Avoid Boredom: Live Dangerously
Almost drop the instrument, plectrum or bow. Throw your instrument in the air and catch it (wonderfully liberating, particularly good for conductors - and batons are cheap). Pianists, barely tickle the keys; imagine you are weightless, and in danger of floating to the ceiling. Play silently and hear it in your imagination.
Playing in ensembles with more advanced players is gigantically stimulating. Playing with less advanced players is also enormously valuable. You have the liberty to expand your consciousness, almost forgetting which line you are playing: listen to your part with as much detachment as the others. This is also the time for wonderful tone enhancement (beauty, not volume).
One of the best ways to practise is to get yourself a couple of gigs... Another way is to get a small child and teach them how to play, you end up playing loads more than you normally would - and it's usually easy!
Nothing concentrates the mind better than going on stage. As a teacher you get results off the top of the graph when you teach an actor to play a tune onstage. Total concentration: they have one tune to learn, nothing else, and theory can go and take a running jump at itself.
My teaching career began with being offered a spot in my school concert. I put together a band and taught my best friend to play guitar from scratch in one term. We added a pickup to my acoustic guitar and hired an electric bass and an amp/speaker, which arrived the day before the concert. We didn't sleep much in that 24 hours. We were fab.
Somehow my teaching since then, though successful enough, has been tinged with a feeling of anti-climax.
Teaching others is perhaps the most efficient learning method of all.
Once I asked a friend how long did it take him to learn some nifty piece, and he replied 'I never learnt it, but I have taught it'.
Exams are at best a pleasant recognition for work you have done.
For years when I was a little girl my teacher would take me and her other pupils out to a place where a nice man would listen to our scales and pieces, then we'd go for tea and buns. We wore our best frocks and it was a lovely day out. Only after three or four of these did I realise this was an exam.
One disadvantage of exams is that students rarely if ever want to play their exam pieces once they are through each grade, whereas traditional players for instance are always happy to play the first tune they ever learnt.
Performing jobs are never given on the strength of exams, but always by audition. Promising conservatory students often drop out before finishing their diplomas, if offered a worthwhile job.
There are several common paths to improve the technique of any instrument, including the voice.
Divide and Conquer
If a bar takes a minute to memorise, you can learn twenty bars and put it all together within half an hour.
I try to work backwards. That way as you go through the piece from start to finish you find yourself more and more fluid. Often people start at the beginning, so instead of getting better as they go through, they get worse (in a play-through situation). I'm currently working with bar after bar of sextuplets, so I take the last six notes, work until I'm fluid. Then go back another six notes, and work on those. I then work on those twelve, practising the join.
Isolate the Problems
Very often the difficulty that is making a piece unplayable can be narrowed down to one small sequence. Take it out of context; writing it on a different page often helps. Treat it in isolation, and when you can do it ten times in a row, smoothly and comfortably, re-incorporate it into the piece.
I'm a choral singer... I find that learning by heart the few bars up to a problem section gives me confidence and stops me worrying that there's a difficult bit coming up. Again, before tackling the problem section, I learn by heart the few bars after it. This way I can move straight from a difficult part to something with which I'm familiar so I don't need to break my concentration in order to prepare for the next section.
I sometimes have to deal with strange intervals between notes, or notes that conflict or discord with those of another part… I take those intervals and practise them until they feel natural and are easier to achieve. When they come up in the work or against other parts, they're far more easy to manage.
I tend to walk down the street singing either major sevenths or diminished fifths.
Swiftness is impressive, but it cannot be forced. It will happen spontaneously as a result of well-oiled fluency. Practising fast notes fast allows ugly accidents to dig ruts in your path.
Metronome practice is very useful, but only when it is used as a steadying measure, to slow you down.
Speed is a by-product of smoothness. Don't practise the scale, practise the smoothness.
The magic jump
Leaps or shifts on a string or keyboard instrument are impressive feats (to put it positively; negatively you could call them major problems). They are learned quickly and reliably by the Magic Jump, as follows:
Play the note before the leap
Leap instantly to the position ready to strike the note after
Do not play that note
The third step is counterintuitive, but essential. Step 1 and step 2 gradually merge into a single motion; that is the goal. From 'play, shift' progress to the smooth transition 'playshift' and finally to the single gesture 'plift'. The sound of the first note, played as short as possible, is your starter's gun. Aim to arrive at the new position before a bystander can hear the first note. Observe your final position and notice any change you want to make next time; but do not play3. Expect many surprises; there are often tangled loops of unnecessary behaviour to be eliminated. Repeat until smooth; you will achieve miraculous improvement straight away.
A way to improve reading: do it with your eyes shut. Look at a bar4, or half a bar, close your eyes, think it through and play it from memory. Fluent readers are constantly reading ahead of what they are playing, which involves a specialised multi-tasking routine: reading, sorting and playing by memory all at once. This is not really more demanding than the skill of threading your way through a crowded pavement, once you're used to it; but the fatal flaw that stops people improving their reading is their willingness to go back and correct mistakes. Mistakes are like mis-hit tennis balls, they cannot be re-hit. A correction is of no use; worse, it is in effect a further mistake. Your attention must always be on the ball coming next.
I've found that writing my own music (and I do mean writing it down properly!) does wonders for my sight-reading.
How to Relax
Often a player feels physical strain. This can be reduced dramatically: professionals normally look quite comfortable!
Touch but do not actually depress the keys or strings; tap your fingers in position several times, easily, gently and silently. This is specially good for learning awkward chords on fretted instruments.
How Much practice is Enough?
Amateurs practise until they get it right; professionals practise until they never get it wrong.
Bing Crosby once said he never performed a song in public until he had practised it so much that the very thought of it made him feel physically ill. This is a little like Douglas Adams's cure for writer's block: stare at the blank page until the blood comes out of your forehead. There is no such amount as too much.
There's a young jive band, S*************, who as part of their system of beliefs, believe they're perfect and don't need to practise... I'm sorry guys, much as I like you, it shows!
Guilt, on the other hand, is not a useful emotion. Many players come to fear the baleful stare of their instrument that seems to say 'You should be practising me'; but you do not have any moral duty towards a piece of wood or metal. You could build up anxiety about not doing enough practice, but cheerful players realise that however much they do, of course it could have been more. There is every reason why you are at the stage you're at.
Delight in the present.
Don't say optimistically 'It'll be all right on the night'. Don't say pessimistically 'I'll never be any good'. Those are equally unjustified delusions.
Many amateur musicians are caught on the horns of a dilemma: if easily motivated, they are easily distracted, and if not, they find it hard to fit practice time into an already full daily routine. Practice done for oneself is the first thing to be sacrificed when something else is clamouring for attention.
Little and often is the best way. As one music teacher told me, 'five minutes a day is more effective than half-an-hour once a week.'
Admit that you can't take on something extra without doing less of something else; write down a list of what you are willing to give up.
If you are a smoker, work out approximately how much time in a day that you spend smoking: it's surprising. Then, give up smoking and spend that time practising. The main thing is playing must be fun!!
Even if your days seem moderately idle, there is always stuff going on, and some of it has to go. Establish (it helps to write it down) how long your session is going to last, before you begin. Decide what level of emergency will be allowed to interrupt it (e.g. doorbell but not phone).
Another thing is to know when to walk away and stop practising. I'm a bassoon player, so nothing hampers a practice session like uncooperative reeds. When that happens, there's no way I can play up to my usual standards and I'll end up frustrated and unhappy for the rest of the day because things weren't going well.
So the point of that is not to be afraid to put your instrument down if things just aren't going well and pick it up at a later (but not too much later) point when you're feeling better.
If others can hear you practising, this does not mean that you should consider them as an audience; practice is emphatically not the same as performance, as the intention is diametrically the opposite.
It seems a major problem is feeling guilty about practising, and inconveniencing those around you. Ask them. Ask them if there is a particular time of day when they really don't want to hear you shrieking. You might find that they like to hear you anyway. When I left home, apparently the neighbours actually said to my parents that they missed hearing me play. News to me; I'd figured they'd got bored of me endlessly trying to play the same thing over and over again, at (to my ears) a low standard.
If you are sometimes prevented from getting to your instrument, or even if you're not, practise in your imagination in any quiet moments. You will be surprised at what you achieve: better solutions to fingering problems, better phrasing through understanding the form, better smoothness through improved memorisation. Think of a conductor, for whom mental practice is the only useful kind5.
Be guided by your ear. It is surprisingly easy to fail to hear what you are doing: the activity of playing can block your critical sense. Here you must be merciless with yourself, and learn to take criticism from your friends, with more than good grace: with all the fascination of an anthropologist observing the strange behaviour of an unknown being - yourself.
All flute players must learn not to make crescendos with their knees.
Search out the elements
Even in cultures where the individuality of the performer is not particularly valued, there is a lot of difference between hearing the music of an adept and the music of a middling performer. It is as though the expert player is one that has found a living balance between all the elements of a piece. And what are the elements of a piece? Looking at a score, they might appear to be the quavers and crotchets and hemidemisemiquavers; but those are just the pixels. If that's all you learn you'll end up with a photograph, not a performance. Music best expresses motion; and a well-coordinated piece moves like a lithe animal. Certain parts are rigid and bony, others are dynamic and muscular, others are fringes that float in the air, or heavy appendages like hooves and horns that alter the balance of all the rest.
The French composer Maurice Ravel was famously fascinated by machines, and he conducted with an unvarying mechanical beat; yet his music gives performers freedom to indulge in sinuous luxury, which it is just wrong to ignore. There are groups all over continental Europe playing Irish traditional music, learnt from recordings; and yet at present it is still possible to tell instantly a group that learns this way, since a certain flexibility in the ornamentation is missing. The elements of a piece of music must be found out in practice, combined with much inquisitive listening in the genre.
Music is Important; Take it Seriously
Music can appear a luxury, and practice time can appear sinfully selfish (particularly when you also want to do something else). But consider this: our personalities, our whole lives, are shaped by our surroundings. The most potent influence by far in our surroundings is other people. Therefore whatever constitutes communication between people is up among the most important things in our world.
Music begins and ends in communication. Being note-perfect is the first step, not the last.
Where you cast your eyes is a surprisingly powerful consideration6. When you are practising, look at an object (a lamp, window or picture will do) and play to that. If this trips you up, you have another valuable piece of information7. An attractive feature of many excellent players is the way they seem to be aware of all that is happening in the room; deep introspection, on the other hand, is a mood valued for its rarity.
Remember, no matter how magical music is - and it truly is! - there is nothing so magical, in the known physical universe, as the human animal. So however much you gain from getting to the core of a piece of music, the music has, if anything, even more to gain from getting to the core of you.