It’s 10:00 a.m., and I’ve already practiced for a couple of hours. I practiced yesterday, too, and I’ll practice tomorrow.
In fact, I’ve been practicing almost daily since childhood. Like musicians everywhere, practice is fundamental to the rhythm of my life.
What keeps us musicians practicing? Self-motivation is a big part of it, as described in Chapter 5 of my book The Musician’s Way.*
But underlying our devotion to daily work is our intention to achieve goals. And the more precise our objectives, the more creative energy they generate.
As an illustration, compare these two approaches to practice:
Student 1 heads to the practice room, and his aim is to "get better." He leisurely warms up for 25 minutes and then mulls over what to do next. After half-heartedly playing through a favorite piece, he considers an etude that his teacher asssigned but decides that the rhythm is hard and that he’ll work on it later. He then runs through a number of excerpts without polishing anything and wraps up unsure of what he’s accomplished. He realizes that he should have practiced that etude and is now worried about having it ready for his upcoming lesson.
Student 2 enters the practice room with specific goals and a timeframe in mind. She efficiently warms up in 10 minutes. Then, having completed a practice performance of a piece the day before, she goes over passages that she wants to improve: she evens out her articulation in a tricky run; she secures her memory by imaging and then executing a couple of sections; she refines her rhythm in several complex phrases by playing them with a metronome. Following a short break, she spends 10 minutes stepping up the speed of an etude. Next, she practices sight-reading for 5 minutes and then learns one page of a new piece at a slow tempo. Lastly, she mentally reviews what she did, thinks about her goals for a subsequent practice session, and exits the practice room with a gleam in her eye.
Obviously, Student 2 is an adept practicer and is moving her artistry forward. Student 1 is ingraining lax habits that could take him further from acquiring the proficiency he craves.
When you practice, which student do you resemble?
If you’d like to be more like Student 2, then you need to set appropriate goals, know how to attain them, and be able to evaluate your work at every level.
Part I of The Musician’s Way, titled Artful Practice, delves into these issues. Here, I’ll sum up a few points about goal setting.
Bear in mind that I'm talking here about deliberate practice as opposed to recreational music making. Casual playing and jam sessions are great fun and important to our development, but they're distinct from deliberate practice.
To begin with, I conceive of practice as comprising five zones:
The Five Practice Zones
1. New Material
2. Developing Material
3. Performance Material
To grow inclusive abilities and sizable repertoires, we have to carve out goals in all of these zones. For instance, we need to grasp how we’ll bring new pieces to concert level, maintain older repertoire, hone our technique, and elevate our sight-reading, improvisation and other musicianship skills.
I advise students to note their basic aims on a practice sheet (see the Downloads Page at MusiciansWay.com) and elaborate on their goals in a notebook or the digital equivalent. For example, a musician seeking to deepen her interpretation of a developing piece might listen to a self-recording and jot down what she’d like to improve.
Our goals, however, shouldn’t merely be outcome-oriented but also process-centered. Process goals encompass the "doing" aspects of learning. As Student 2 exemplifies, they incorporate knowing how to manage time, solve problems, control tempos, self-assess, and refine interpretation.
Each practice zone calls for a particular set of process skills.
When we pinpoint both outcome and process goals, and when we have abundant process skills at our disposal, we head to the practice room with gusto, and we depart with a sense of achievement.
To gain fluency with these processes, though, we must work with accessible material. Then we can learn pieces quickly, distill our interpretive abilities, and perform with confidence.
In contrast, students who opt for out-of-reach music typically feel overwhelmed in practice and nervous on stage.
But with clear goals and the means to attain them at hand, we can advance on our path and give voice to our musical soul.
*The Musician’s Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance, and Wellness, by Gerald Klickstein (360 pages. Oxford University Press, 2009. $24.95.).
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