In “Interior and Exterior Experiences of Music,” I discuss the importance of development on both technical/theoretical and experiential/expressive domains. Clearly, the most important aspect of this is practice, the question is how. Our approach to practice plays a significant role in our development and can make the difference between growing as artists, stagnating, or even becoming so discouraged that we decide to quit altogether.
First, it should be noted that without some form of practice, we usually do not develop very much at all. So it is especially important for the beginning student of music to make a commitment to a regular practice. The degree and pace of development will be determined in large part by how much we practice. Generally, I recommend no less than an hour every two days, and an hour a day will produce more results more quickly. I know (very accomplished) artists who practice a few hours a day, and have heard of artists practicing as much as eight hours daily.
The next consideration is what or how to practice. To maximize the benefits of practice, here are a few recommendations:
Divide your practice into two sessions. The first should be technical where you work on various aspects of exterior components of your playing: articulation, projection/dynamics, dexterity, ambidexterity exercises, timing, tempo, various voicing combinations, playing material that you find challenging. The second session should be focused on making music – this is where you set aside whatever exterior aspects are most challenging and focus on making music with what you already know. Focus on listening and connecting with your sense of creative musicality. Over time you will notice that elements of your practice in your first session begin to arise in the second session. This will reduce your likelihood of getting discouraged when first practice session elements are particularly challenging.
- Set a specific goal. Decide on what aspect of your playing you most need to develop and focus most of your practice time on that each time you practice. Doing so every day will enable you to more easily pick up close to where you left off from your previous practice session. Over time, you will find that it takes less time to refocus your attention on that element from one practice session to the next.
- Pay attention to the feedback loop between your intention, your body, and the sound you produce – this is one of the greatest tools at your disposal to identify how you can improve
- As you begin to build confidence in different aspects of your playing look for new applications of the element. You will find that by applying the element in different contexts, you will broaden your sense of the element’s application.
- Don’t try to master one element before beginning to pay attention to another. Most facets of exterior development are inter-related. For example you may find that your articulation is coming along nicely at 100bpm but suffers at 120bpm. Or you may find that you have built a greater range of tempos you can play with precise timing – but the faster you get, the more difficult it is to control your dynamics. You will discover that by having a specific goal and then trying to apply secondary elements your ability to see new aspects of your primary goal come into sharper focus. Additionally, mastery is an ongoing process; you may never be fully satisfied with any aspect of your playing – the more you learn the more you find that you don’t know – and the more nuanced your sensitivity becomes, enabling you to bring a more refined critique of your playing.
- If you find yourself getting frustrated, step back and narrow the scope of your goal. For example if you are working on articulation and are failing to get consistent articulation in your voicing (dum/tek/ka/gun/go/do/pa/ta,etc…) when you combine voices, simplify the combination. If that still leaves you exasperated, focus on a single voice. If you are working on a pattern that is particularly challenging and you feel like you just aren’t getting it, take the pattern apart and focus on specific moments, say two or three beats at a time, then focus on combining them. Frustration, while inevitable, should only serve to motivate you. If it is draining your energy to practice it serves nothing.
- Continue to honestly evaluate your development. As you develop, come back to earlier aspects of your practice from time to time. Evaluate whether you have more to work on, or (as is often the case) whether your development continues to progress without needing to specifically focus on some earlier aspects. Review for yourself what approaches seem to work best and build on those. Consider alternate strategies for approaches that are not working for you. As you evaluate, continue to focus on what you find most difficult for further practice.
- With particularly difficult material, allow yourself to learn in different ways. First start with minimal context, perhaps just the pulse, and focus on the sequence of notes. After you have it, move on to integrating the rest of the context. If playing in an ensemble, listen to your part within the context of the rest of the parts; keep a strong sense of the structure and content. Once you feel comfortable in the full context, focus on being musical with the part – pay attention to emphasis and expression; play with ornamentation and variation from this perspective
- Practice in a place that is free from distractions and other sounds –
- Focus on the silence – both within and without. Clear your mind of any thoughts beyond those that arise from the music and allow them to pass. Listen for the pulse in the silence before you make any sound.
- Pay attention to your breathing, your body, and the sound of each note as it comes into being.
- Allow your inspiration to take you wherever it will; don’t try to play anything, just play.
- When you feel it is time to stop, slowly begin a subtle descent, gradually reduce your volume or note density. Continue this progression until you return to the silent sound of just the pulse, and then let that fall away to just silence. Reside in that silence for as long as it is present.
- When the meditation is complete, don’t evaluate your playing, just reflect on your experience
Every musician practices – the amount and quality of practice WILL have an effect on your development. Through commitment and discipline, you will find great rewards in the acquisition of new skills, a refined sense of musicality, and greater flexibility as a musician.