Tips on Practicing by Maxwell Kilcup

Over my years of performing and educating I’ve picked up a lot of knowledge on many different musical subjects, from how to use and interpret the most esoteric of western harmonies to the last meat-based meal John Lennon ate before he gave it up (it was a BLT, in case you were wondering). But along the way I’ve noticed that one of the most important things we have to do as musicians is rarely addressed, and if it is, in a rather incomplete way. So with that said, let’s talk about practicing: shedding, cutting, chopping, whatever you’d like to call it.

First, I’d like to address a few things that many of us have probably been told at some point by older musicians:

  1. “It takes 10,000 hours to be great.” This is true, but misleading advice. While it’s important to think about the amount of time we put in, we also have to think about what we’re spending it on.
  2. “It takes hundreds of repetitions to REALLY know something.” It never hurts to get repetitions in, especially when playing something tricky, but hundreds is misleading and even harmful. Ideally, once you know a piece of music, if you get 3-5 solid repetitions in with few or no mistakes, you’ll have it forever. Going over it more than that (unless you have to perform it for an upcoming gig or recital) just eats up time that could be better spent on new material.
  3. “Always warm up with the basics!” This is probably the worst advice I’ve ever heard. Warming up has its place (especially for absolute beginners), but it’s not real practicing. You don’t need to do it for more than 5 minutes: stretches, breathing, scales, finger patterns, etc. It only serves to prepare your brain and muscles (personally, I don’t even use an instrument: I just stretch my hands and snap my fingers for about a minute, if at all, which is plenty). After a certain point this is mostly unnecessary- nobody has ever gotten good by playing lots of warmups.

So with that said, how do we practice effectively? For starters I recommend getting a stand for your instrument. One of the biggest favors we can do ourselves is to always have it within arm’s reach and ready to go. Most of us have a place where we spend most of our time outside of school or work, so ideally we should keep our gear in that room. Keeping something to play nearby compels us to play it when we’re not doing anything important (which is much more often than you’d think).

In addition to having an instrument readily available, I’ve found that it helps to have a serious workout twice a day, every day. If you’re in school and your teacher makes you fill out practice reports, you may find yourself scrambling to catch up at the end of the week: you’ll end up getting the credit, but won’t be any better for it and may even end up hurting yourself in the process. This is because by practicing twice a day, you brain has time to process what you did earlier and make the second session easier. Following this routine is a guaranteed way to see tangible improvement in a short period of time. For beginners each session could be as short as 15-20 minutes, for intermediates, 30-45 minutes. If you’re an advanced player, it takes at least an hour or two every day just to keep your chops up, so why are you reading this? Get to work!

Finally, keep in mind the kind of player you want to be and figure out, very specifically, what you need to work on (this is where having a teacher helps). In my case, I’m the kind of person who wants to be able to say “yes” to literally any gig if I’m available- lack of ability should never be a factor. That means I have to have really big ears, know lots of tunes, and be comfortable playing any style of music. Someone else might just want to perform for their friends and family, but that still requires certain skill sets to be any good, and the whole point is to be good at what we do, right? So with that said, the most important instruction I can give on the subject is to try something unfamiliar and a little bit above your ability level every day. That could be a song you’ve never played before, something that really challenges your dexterity, a new technique- anything that the current you can’t do with relative ease. Remember: when you get frustrated, you’re actually learning. If something is easy, you’re coasting.

Next time we’ll talk about more specific methods for achieving different goals, but for now, grab something to drink, let your gears start turning, and start implementing some of what we’ve discussed. You’ll be much better for it, I promise!

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