I’m going to level with you—I didn’t really start taking my studies in music seriously until six months out from my undergraduate auditions. I never really considered, in my youth, that music was something to study or pursue further than VCE Music Performance or my Grade 8 AMEB. An offhand comment from a friend led to a change of heart in the eleventh hour of my VTAC applications and I haven’t ever looked back.
I mean, I’d seen the MSO and listened to classical music radio; I knew that you could take music to a high level of artistry—I just didn’t know how and, frankly, didn’t really think it was within me to get that proficient.
The way I approached practice at the time meant it certainly wasn’t in me to achieve anything more than a bare pass in “Piano for Leisure” Seventh Grade (which, amazingly, is currently the highest musical qualification I have obtained).
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m not coming at you with a long history of great and prodigious musical success, in fact, I’ve had my fair share of pretty embarrassing failures. I’m just an average guy, with average Bachelor of Music struggles. What I’ve learnt has been through my own investigation and the advice I have received from teachers and other musicians, all of which has taken me from “Pretty Mediocre” to “Not Half Bad”.
Studying music at a University is not as different to studying other, more ‘normal’ degrees as you might think. The content is different but the structure of a degrees is generally split up into class time and private study. Where arts students may have giant piles of readings and research to do for every essay and science students have to write reports after spending hours in the lab, music students should spend their non-class time practicing.
Practice is everything. I was trying to think of a long-winded, somewhat-philosophical (read as: pretentious) opener about practice, but I really can’t put it any other way. Practice is everything. Without it you cannot succeed. No amount of lessons, lectures, aural training, theory knowledge, music history, or masterclasses can save you from certain and abysmal failure if you do not practice.
It sounds obvious. It is.
You’ll get told this by everyone, all the time. You’re getting told this by me, right now. Your teacher has probably repeated it in your last lesson. Your instrument coordinator probably signs off emails smugly with “now, go and do some practice” (assuming they’re hip and young enough to email). You’ve probably heard it enough times to never, ever want to practice again.
What I’m going to do is recount how I feel about and approach practice at the end of my undergraduate studies and talk about the principles I’ve discovered and why they work for me—Original, I know. Hopefully you’ll be able to get the tools you need to develop and grow an effective and tailored practice regime. In a certain contradiction to the “do what I do” vibe of this article, I want to start with the idea that Everyone is Different.
Or Just Because They do it and They’re Really Good Does Not Mean it Works for You. We think differently. We have different thought processes and we conceptualise in different ways. Some people are wired to think in pictures, while others can recall information like Google but couldn’t tell you which direction Federation Square is. I can remember everything about someone’s personality and character, but I cannot recall basic facts about their identity (say, my mother’s birthdate) without consulting their Facebook profile (sorry, mum). Practice is the same—everyone must do it differently.
Some people can look at a score, memorise the music, and then play it from memory with perfect or near-perfect recall. I need to rehearse the physical motion of accurately playing my instrument at least five times, at three different practice sessions before I can confidently declare a passage memorised. I’d be lucky to memorise even a four bar melody unless I play it this way. Some musicians will always sing “Do” as the pitch of C, where others will sing “Do” to the tonic. Some memorise the melody and then the harmony, some memorise the harmony and then the melody.
I know a trombonist who will memorise two bars of a hundred-and-something bar part and then learn the other bars of his part by comparing them to the first two bars and noting the differences. Similarly there is an honours level pianist who cannot read music and therefore learns music by ear and by rote only.
I know pianists who can’t start the day without playing their Hanon exercises. I know world-class piano teachers who will also insist on this practice. Yet, at the instruction of my world-class piano teacher, I have never played a Hanon exercise (Piano is stupid).
Possibly hundreds of different ways to practice will be thrown at you in your first years of study. Not all of them are going to work and you need to be able to recognise how you learn music and select the practice techniques that work most effectively in tandem with your psyche. Synergise your practice techniques!
But please Try Everything New (or Just Because They do it and They’re Really Good is the Perfect Reason to Do It). Examining my own technique I’ve begun to think that never playing Hanon might not have been as effective as my piano teacher led me to believe. A current Beethoven sonata I’m learning has a particularly dextrous section for the left hand and I’m honestly in struggle town. Other pianists who play their finger exercises seem to have less trouble with similar sections. Maybe assigning ten minutes a day to the first few exercises in the book might not be a bad idea to improve the strength and facility of my left hand and arm muscles. Who knows? It’s worth a try.
It’s good, I find, to think about the first two principles working together rather than against each other. While it is important to try every practice method to see if there’s a better way to play, it is just as important to be super critical about what your doing in you precious, precious practice time. Anything that doesn’t see you practicing at your peak (so that you can perform at your peak) should be abandoned as soon as you realise it’s worthless to you.
Frequency. Be frequent. It took me forever to realise that practicing for an hour—yes, just one single hour—everyday was far more effective than one three-hour session every three days. Even better is forty minutes in the morning and thirty minutes at night. The more frequently you practice, the better you play.
Consider cycling: People who cycle everyday are generally pretty good cyclists. This is because the cycling-related muscles have strengthened due to regular intense use, and the mental processes involved with cycling (including sense of balance, traffic awareness, taste in lycra couture, and general cycling skill) are exercised every day. It’s common sense that if a regular cyclist took an extended break from cycling (say, due to illness) and then returned after ten or so days they would find the task a little more challenging than usual. They’d need to get ‘back in the groove’, as it were.
Horowitz himself said that if he did not practice for twenty-four hours he could sense his ability slipping, and if it got to a week of no practice his audiences began to notice.
The ideal would be serious and considered practice for at least two sessions every twenty-four hours. Six hour days (at least) would be my goal. Still, that’s not possible everyday and I totally understand that.
What you need to have, at the bare minimum, is regular contact with your instrument. Even if you just play for fifteen minutes that’s better than not doing anything. I was told recently that what sets the real achievers in music apart is that they know the value of fifteen minutes is almost as great as the two hours we usually like to spend. I believe that.
How to use this time: if your music isn’t perfect yet (especially with something like the piano) the temptation can be there to not feel like you have anything to play unless you’re well over halfway through learning a piece. Not true. You can isolate out the melody and practice your phrasing. You’ve probably got scales, arpeggios, or long tones. Old repertoire and sight-reading practice can also be excellent here. You never have nothing to play.
Additionally, if you’ve got a “twenty-minute problem” (like one note that you keep missing) or task (like play your étude three beats per minute faster than yesterday) than you could do that because that’s better than just sitting and playing scales without really thinking.
The bottom line is be sure that you play your instrument often. It might feel like you haven’t got time but the next time you sit down to play after a long break you will be kicking yourself because your fingers will feel like molasses. Be prepared and willing to make (reasonable!) sacrifices for your practice.
The second last thing I want to mention is Look After Yourself. Do not play through pain. During physical exercise, your muscles build up lactic acid and this will start to burn around that area (literally “feel the burn”). This is a good feeling (citation needed) but your body reaches a point where the pain signal changes and you know that it is important that you stop the activity immediately.
This is similar for practice. Some of the very physically demanding repertoire for piano (for example, Chopin’s Étude Opus 10, No. 12) will of course leave you feeling tired and fatigued after an at-tempo performance. The nature of the piece though means the risk of muscular/tedonal injury is quite high and at all times you are playing works like this you should be monitoring your body for any signs that you are doing damage.
Do not let over-zealous or careless practice be responsible for a performance inhibiting injury. If a piece is a risk plan to build it very slowly and carefully. Your body is what you use to perform music and care of it is absolutely paramount. If you are unsure of the risks of a work or a technique, talk to your teacher.
And on that note: take care of yourself outside the practice room. Make sure you keep yourself physically and mentally healthy enough to do the work you want to do. Hydrate regularly, sleep appropriately, eat well, take regular breaks, and all that other self-care jazz. Your body is a nuanced and unique machine and you are most familiar with how to care for it. Keeping the machine in top condition produces top results.
I feel like I’ve been skirting around my final point for this whole article but I made the decision to keep until the end. If your attention has wandered here is where I recommend you start paying attention again, because it all comes together: Think.
There’s a brain in your skull. Inside it is everything you know about music. The more you access and tend to this repository the easier it is to unlock the higher levels of musicianship we’re all aiming for.
The only way you can get there is by thinking. All of the advice that I have given you so far is predicated on active mental function. If you don’t think when you practice you won’t think when you perform, and that’s a guaranteed disaster.
Where the problem lies with correcting this is that it is inherently impossible to realise when you’re not thinking. You can’t really stop yourself from zoning out; you only realise you lost focused after you “snap out of it”.
To help reduce the chances of zoning out happening make sure you review your practice and consider it right before your next session. After a session (or even halfway through) critically assess whether or not you are practicing at your peak. If you need help monitoring the quality of your practice keep a journal or diary and try and answer these questions:
What is it that you need to change to work more effectively? Have you achieved concrete progress? Are you hydrated? Can you remember what your teacher said? Are you following their instructions? What would you teacher say if they heard or saw you do that? Were you thinking while you were playing? Is what you are doing working for you and can you identify why/why not? How many hours did you sleep last night? Are you on track for your performance deadline(s)? Are you focused on your goals?
Practice is the fundamental of what we do. The better you practice the better musician you are. It’s a dynamic and evolving activity: constant evaluation and appropriate change should be a long-term feature of your process. You shouldn’t be doing the same practice you were doing six months ago. If you are then, frankly, you’re probably not improving (Don’t stress so much about this, just talk to your teacher about ways to kick-start your practice)
You’ve made the decision to work as a musician and now you’ve got to work as a musician. Think about what kind of musician you want to be, think about why you want to be that, and then think about how you’re going to get there.
Now, go and do some practice.