How many of us know a musician that practices for more than two hours daily? There’s no doubt that these obsessive types exist, but when you’re in the real world there’s always something there to curtail your ideal uninterrupted practice time (job, kids, American Idol…). It seems that the requirement of our dedication to music study is constantly condemning us to never really have a social life because of the demands on our time. I’m forever indebted to the teacher that really taught me how to practice (that would be Jim Piorkowski – thanks, Jim). He’s saved years of my time. Ever since this moment I have been awestruck at the astonishing absence of this topic amongst most music study, even at the highest levels.. This revelatory experience was one of the pivotal moments in the evolution of my musical studies. In a brief time I changed from an all-day-practicer (without amazing results) to an hour-a-day-practicer (with very good results).
Does this routine sound familiar? Learn new piece: Step 1 – Play piece from beginning to end (with difficulty). Step 2 – Go back to beginning, play again (with slightly less difficulty). Step 3 – Repeat (ad nauseum). This technique is perhaps the most intuitive method for learning and it’s likely that students unconsciously adopt such a method because it’s similar to how we might learn from a textbook. In music however, the textbook method is simply wasteful. What’s worse, it will never deal directly with your problem areas. We’ve all had experiences with those segments of music that just never seem to get better, no matter how many times we go over it. But a change in your approach could be the answer to reducing your practice time (and possibly helping you out with that looming tendonitis that serious practicers are always flirting with).
Sight-reading is something that, by definition, is only done once. Too often we end up sight-reading a new piece many times, maybe for days. With longer or more difficult pieces sight-reading from top to bottom may not be appropriate at all, and will actually lead to frustration. The next time you start a new piece, keep these tips in mind and you can minimize your time spent stumbling through without progress. If you’re working on a rock song without written music you will benefit greatly from at least making a lead sheet showing bar lines (4 per line, always!), sections (double bar lines), form, etc. This can be done without really having to deal too much with the notes, and will teach you a lot about the tune before you even start the hard work. If you think you’re going to bypass this part by downloading a tab chart from the internet, prepare to pay the price! In my experience these charts are incomplete, unclear, and frequently written by people with no musical knowledge whatsoever.
First time through
Identify sections (if not already clear) and repeating passages, as well as sections that represent developments of previous material. If you can do a quick harmonic analysis, this will come in handy later when it comes to such things as dynamics and phrasing.
Mark spots that you feel will be most problematic. This is the key preparatory step. Continue to identify these spots whenever they crop up.
Here’s where your diligence starts to pay off. Phrase by phrase (or in shorter segments), begin to tackle the details. When you come to one of your trouble spots, it’s time to use the ‘Steamroller Method.’ This is my name for zooming in on the smallest possible fragment that you’ve identified as a trouble spot. Rehearse yourself over and over (and over, and over…) until you’ve taught your hands (lips, toes, whatever) the maneuvers by muscle-memory. This takes longer than you think! When you’ve made some progress, zoom out a bit and practice getting into and out of the problem area. Then zoom out further until finally you’re dealing with phrases again. When you’re ready to move on to the next phrase, don’t neglect to use the Steamroller Method to practice crossing over from one segment to the next.
Memorization might seem like a given once you’ve gone over each note so many times. But can you sing the parts? The teacher I learned this from told me I had to be able to play the bass part while I sang the melody, and vice versa, from memory. I had to be able to sing the parts backwards! I’m not sure I ever got that right, but it does bring up an interesting memorization technique: start at the end! Start by memorizing the last phrase and move backwards, playing to the end each time you add a segment. Then you will always be countering the natural tendency to get sloppier towards the conclusion, which typically has not been rehearsed as much.
Practicing is not so much a matter of counting the hours you invest (and then complaining about it later). It’s more a matter of the quality and efficiency of those hours. The next time you start a new tune, try the Steamroller. At first you’ll be surprised at how hard it is to break the habit of going back to the beginning all the time and playing to the end all the time (and rehearsing your mistakes until you start to think they’re correct). Give it a little time and dedication, and you can probably cut your practice hours in half…so go get your life back!