Welcome to the first post here at ShostyScholar. I don’t want to do much introductory stuff, so I’ll skip straight to what I hope is interesting content.
I’ve been thinking a lot about practicing lately and have had many discussions about it. I’ve scoured the Internet for articles about it and believe it or not, I was pretty disappointed. Most of what I found was pretty common sense and not as well-suited for people who have a fair bit of experience practicing, but are, like me, always seeking to refine their practice sessions. So I’ve tried to omit what I thought was so obvious as to be patronizing and I’ve tried to be succinct–there’s certainly more to be said about these topics than what’s below. Lots of what’s here is probably something you already do in some form, but I at least thought they merited more fleshing out.
Here are my top four tips for effective practice.
1) Never don’t play music
I originally thought to omit this tip because I as I noted above, I meant to go beyond what I deemed common sense. Several conversations lately have convinced me that this is a more contentious idea than I originally thought, however. The basic thrust of the idea is that if you are playing (or singing, as the case may be) you should be making music. I never pick up my oboe without the intent to make music. Scales, finger exercises, long tones – all of these can be played musically; it is in fact profoundly good practice to make music out of a long tone.
The reason it’s important to make music always is that old rule of practice – any error you make in practice is something that can come haunt you in performance. Playing unmusically is an error, and playing a passage with less than stellar musicality in practice reduces your likelihood of playing with maximum musicality in performance, just as a passage that’s practiced with a wrong note is likely to trip you up in performance.
As I spoke to people about this idea, I found the main objection they had was based on a misconception. Many thought that if you try to play everything musically, you can’t get granular enough to practice the minute details that are equally important to the finished product. I think this is incorrect. Playing musically does not mean the smallest unit you can play is the phrase. Every phrase in music is composed of sub-phrases, which are composed of even smaller building blocks. You can practice two notes at a time and still do so musically.
2) Schedule practice time
I originally started thinking about scheduling all my practice time when I was in college. I didn’t so much schedule my practice time as have it scheduled for me by virtue of all the other activities in my day, leaving me with pretty obvious choices for when to practice if I wanted to get the amount in I needed. Since college, I have a freer schedule and so the problem has become one of motivation. As an experiment, I starting blocking time off on my calendar for practicing and it’s worked out well.
I recommend starting slowly with this approach – don’t try to schedule three hours every day from now until forever. Start with small chunks of time and not necessarily every day. Presumably you already have the habit of practicing; scheduling that practice is just an amendment to that habit. However, it will still take time and effort to grow accustomed to it.
3) Practicing is an intellectual engagement
There is no such thing as disengaged practice. Or at least, as disengaged good practice. Music is an organic entity that presents us with an endless stream of choices as we engage with it; this is why it’s so cool and mystifying. However, it also means that it requires incredible intellectual effort to make those decisions intelligently and artistically. If you are applying tip 1 above – never don’t make music – this means that you are never not engaged in that decision-making.
Practicing is not only the constant decision-making process from above, it’s also constant retroactive analysis of those decisions, asking questions like did it have the intended effect? What needs to be different? How? These two processes together are what advance us musically. The moral of the story is that when you’re making music, the brain should be going full-tilt. There’s no shortcut in this matter. If you are not intellectually exhausted after a long practice session, you’re likely doing it wrong.
4) Practicing requires structure.
All those choices and analysis don’t just happen. The best practice sessions are the result of a concrete plan. You must go in with at least three things: what you want to achieve, how you’re going to achieve, and a metric by which you’re going to measure it.
When thinking about what you want to achieve, be specific. Describing a passage as “bad” or “ugly” is not as useful as describing it as “uneven” or “rhythmically inaccurate.”
Being specific is important because it makes the first step more useful for the second step, determining how you’re going to fix the problem. If you describe something as “bad,” the corrective action isn’t clear. But if you say “uneven,” you’re much closer to knowing what exactly to do to fix the problem. Knowing what you need to do beforehand allows you to use your practice time most efficiently. That way you can use your time actually doing corrective playing, instead of deciding what you should be doing.
Finally, you need some way to measure your improvement. This can sometimes be something very obvious, like being able to play a passage with the correct notes at tempo when you previously couldn’t. Other times you have to work a little to measure your progress. When I was an undergraduate oboe major, one of the first major technical hurdles I encountered was correctly producing different dynamics and moving between those dynamics. The problem was that I didn’t have wide range of dynamics. The corrective action was an exercise my teacher gave me which was basically long-tones with vast crescendi and decrescendi in them. At the time I was missing a way to measure my progress, so I felt like I was spinning my wheels. Finally, my teacher suggested I keep a notebook and each time I did the exercise, write down on a subjective scale of 1-10 how I was doing. Although of course there are problems with subjective measuring scales, I was still able to see my progress over the months as my self-ratings went up.
These are the opening ideas in what I hope will be many discussions about practicing here. What are your ideas on practicing? Is there something here you’d like me to write more about at length?