Practice Music Better! – 5 Tips To Get You To Proficiency Quicker
Some music is hard.
Not everything is just four chords and a love lyric.
From “Goldberg Variations”, to Speed Metal; from Paganini, to “Spanish Fly”… there’s just some music that’s not only going to take days to prepare… you’ll be honing it for months, if not… YEARS!!
Take Roman Kim in this video here… do you really think he got this ready in a few days? Uh… I think NOT.
To help when those tough pieces come along, I’ve listed here for you today what I consider my top five recommendations for pulling off “advanced technique” music, without tearing your hair out… or smashing your instrument on the floor… or being grumpy to everyone in your family. ‘Cause, ya know… who needs that?!
Take these tips to heart and, I promise, you will reach the peak of that daunting mountain called compositional mastery!!
1) Hang it Up!
This trick I learned a long time ago. While I was still in my teens, actually.
I didn’t really know I was implementing a successful technique for musical progress. I just did what came naturally and learned over time that it made a big difference.
Here’s what you do: leave the instrument that you want to practice out of the case and within reach.
That’s it. Nothing more to it.
It’s been proven by many teachers and students over many years that, for the average musician, the easier you make practice time, the more you’ll practice.
All of my guitars, for example, hang on a wall in my studio. Since that’s where I work almost every day, I often take one down to practice something, and it’s so much easier than finding the right guitar in a big stack of cases and digging it out from a room far away.
For those of you who’ve ever had a piano in the house: how many times did you, a relative, or a friend, sit down and play something on that piano just because… it was right there! Happens all the time at our house.
Now there are two caveats: first, make sure that your instruments stays safe.
If there’s any chance that a pet, young child or rambunctious tween could knock your instrument over, hit it with a ball, start chewing on it or take it for any reason from its safe cradle, then don’t chance it. Keep it in its case.
But if you have a relatively safe environment, as I do in my studio (perhaps in your bedroom?), get that thing out where you can pick it up in seconds and get to work.
All my instruments are hung on walls, except for my cello which I keep on a sturdy stand, and my sax collection which I have on stands next to a large speaker so they can’t be knocked over. I highly recommend using the hanging method whenever possible, as it not only keeps your instruments safe, it also keeps them from taking up a lot of floor space.
All the various wall hangers I’ve used over the years, THIS BRAND is my all-time favorite. For about the last 7 years, it’s the only kind I’ve purchased. They have different sizes depending on what you want to hang.
So keep that axe at hand. Once you do… you probably won’t go back.
The second caveat is this: don’t take your instruments out of the case if your living space has wild fluctuations in temperature or humidity.
Extreme changes in those two areas can really wreak havoc on a musical instrument, so don’t make them face that kind of assault. See a more detailed examination of those dangers IN THIS ARTICLE.
If your place has consistent temp and water content though… you’re good to go. Keep ’em… where you can REACH ’em!
2) 10 Short Over 1 Long
Ever heard of the “spacing effect“?
No, it’s not a Star Trek scene where they throw someone out of the airlock!
A couple of years ago I happened to stumble upon an article outlining the benefits of this beneficial method for practicing. I’d kind of already done it for years, but without really knowing it.
If you want, you can ruminate over all the juicy tidbits by studying THIS ARTICLE. But let me give you the Clifsnotes version:
Basically, if you spread out your practice into several, or many, sessions over time, you’ll get better results then “cramming” in a single study time.
Another term for this more productive method is “distributed training“, referring to the fact that the learning sessions are distributed over time.
So what’s so cool about this way of learning?? Well, how about being able to get the same results (which for us musicians means being able to successfully perform a song) in, oh, saaaay…
… (wait for it)…
… HALF the time!! Or at least nearly so.
And then there’s another awesome benefit of spreading out your study into little bits: better retention of the information!
Numerous studies have shown that if you learn something in one single sitting, you’ll remember it well the next day… but after that?? There’s a considerable drop-off in ability and memory.
So the upshot of this is exactly what I tell my music students: strive to practice 15 to 20 minutes each day, instead of an hour once or twice a week… or cramming right before your lesson!
You’ll learn your music quicker, and be able to remember it better without a lot of “refreshing your memory” later when you have to pull the song out again.
These effects were consistent in all the studies regardless of the AGE of the students too. So if you’re NOT in school anymore… doesn’t matter. You’ll still reap the benefits of this very efficient approach to learning music. Or learning anything, for that matter.
So if you have the choice of studying in ten short sessions, or one long one, the best path is clear: short is good!
3) Focus on the Hard Bits
This insight comes from watching many students, including my own children, struggle to reproduce certain passages of music.
I noticed that they would start a song at the beginning, play until they messed up, then start the song over at the beginning again and try to not mess it up at that same spot when they got there.
Guys, gals… listen closely: there’s no need to go back to the beginning of the piece when you keep making a mistake 50 measures in. Don’t do it!
Instead, isolate the error spot where you’re having the problem and only practice that!
If the bridge of a song is constantly where you are messing up, let’s say, then forget the rest of the song for now. Only strive to get the bridge mastered.
And if we use our distributed learning method that we just talked about, our process would look like this:
Monday: practiced the bridge for 10 minutes at 4 o’clock, then again at 7 p.m. for 15 minutes.
Tuesday: practiced the bridge for 20 minutes at 3:30, then again at 8 p.m. for 7 minutes.
Wednesday: studied only the bridge again for 12 minutes at 4:30, then briefly before bed at 9 o’clock for just 3 minutes.
In all actuality, you probably won’t even need to make it to Thursday using this method. By the very next day you’ll probably have the bridge down. Unless it’s terribly complex.
The point is to concentrate on what’s tripping you up. There’s no need to practice music that you can already play well.
Once you’ve mastered the section that you kept making the mistake on, THEN go back to the top of the piece and see if you can make it to the end of the song.
If not… if some OTHER measure trips you up, well, then start the whole process again, only practicing that section which is giving you trouble.
This honing in on the hard bits will save you a lot of time in your practice sessions, because you won’t be practicing things you don’t need to. Instead, you’ll be devoting the short time you have to really nailing those difficult passages.
That, my friends, is what will lead to quick, confident mastery of any piece of music!
4) Clean the Window
Has anyone else out there noticed that life can get kind of, uh… BUSY?!
The frenetic pace of our 21st century lifestyles can sometimes be challenging to keep in check. Even when we’re not technically doing anything, our minds can still be racing with the events of today, or the next day, or yesterday…
This all makes it really difficult when attempting to focus on things. It’s like trying to read fine print through a frosted-over window!
Because of this, I recommend starting each practice session with a short meditation.
Now I’m not saying turn Buddhist, or even get all spiritual (though you certainly can, as I do). Task-oriented meditation is simply this: concentrating on only your breathing for a short period.
You’d think this would be easy.
You’d be wrong.
For most people, just trying to only think about one thing is like keeping 20 plates spinning on pikes! It’s because we have so much going on in our lives, day and night, inside, outside… it demands a lot of our brain, and for that reason it’s easy to get distracted.
See what I mean? LoL
Seriously though, if you just take one minute to clear your mind by focusing on your breathing, over time you’ll find that you have better control over your thoughts than you ever did.
And because all actions start with thought, you’ll also find that you have more self-control in your life with regard to what you do.
I was first introduced to meditation while taking Kung Fu with my son. I’ve used it ever since, and found it to be an excellent way of giving my mind a demanding workout, building its muscle, showing it who’s boss, and learning how to concentrate on only ONE THING, and do it well.
Remember, it doesn’t have to be much. Just close your eyes, try to really hone in on each breath you take, and after only 1 minute… pick up your instrument and get to work.
You just may find you have a sharp focus, clarity, precision and insight that you’ve never had before!
5) Finger it Out
I still have it to this day.
The May 1984 edition of Guitar magazine.
On the cover? My hero: Edward Van Halen.
Inside the pages? A transcription I’d been waiting for – the complete guitar tab for the song “Little Guitars“, off the THEN brand new Van Halen album ” Diver Down”.
I was so excited. This was my favorite song off their new album and, as I had learned many Eddie songs from their previous records, I was anxious to master one more.
I spent a few weeks trying to get it down. It was quite complex, and the fingerings were, to put it mildly, BIZARRE! I had never played most of these chord shapes in a song before. Ever.
But I did it. I learned how to play it. My smile was a mile wide, and my technique had only gotten better because I had stretched its limits once again.
Fast forward to just over 20 years later. The Internet is now in full swing, and YouTube is starting to take over where MTV used to reign.
I’m watching a video of Eddie in the 80s playing “Little Guitars”, and I noticed something.
He is playing it completely differently than I learned it!
I stopped the video at certain points so I could really see clearly what he was playing. I was stunned. For at least half the song, he was playing totally normal chords: no bizarre fingerings; no twisted and distorted stretching. Just D major. A major.
I couldn’t believe it. I was facing the truth after more than two decades…
… thanks to Guitar magazine, I had learned one of my favorite songs ever…
… TOTALLY WRONG!!!
Well, I struggled for a time but I have finally forgiven whoever transcribed the tab. They didn’t give their name. Probably because of instances just like this… when their errors are insanely HUGE.
So what’s my point? It’s this: make sure that, whatever you’re practicing, you have the right fingerings that the composer had in mind!
With YouTube at our fingertips these days, we have no excuse. We can go online and see our musical heroes playing any song we like, usually multiple times over, from many live shows.
So go watch your hero. What fingerings are THEY using? Those are the ones that you should use. At least to start with. Later you can change it up however you feel.
Below is, for example, the 1984 Van Halen tour vid’ which I saw that gave me the “Ah-HA!” moment. The fingerings were all wrong because he wasn’t using a normal guitar! He instead was given a LITTLE GUITAR (literally!!) that was tuned like a regular guitar with a capo at the 3rd fret, AND the low E string dropped to a D.
Since that time, I’ve purchased my OWN ‘little guitar’ so I can play the song just like Eddie does… with no contortions or grimaces for the hand pain! LoL
Whether it’s piano, guitar, bass, drums, wind instruments, brass instruments… whatever! The best thing you can do is see how the pros do it. Otherwise, you may end up making it much more complicated than you need to.
Sometimes the reason why a piece of music is so difficult is… ‘cuz you’re doing it wrong!
We’ve only got so much time, and it’s valuable. So to make our practicing efficient, learn how the best of the best do it. Make sure as you’re working on pieces that you compare your hand positions and fingerings with the composers, or players, who have mastered them.
Trust me – you don’t want to spend days on something only to find out you missed the mark! 😉
Giving it a Rest
So that’s that for today. I hope you found this article helpful, and I especially hope that the methods I’ve discussed here today help you become a better musician, quicker and more efficiently, than ever before.
Remember that the pauses in between your practice sessions are just as important as practicing. For some reason our brains prefer these punctuated stabs at learning, much more so than cramming.
So relax. That is to say, when you relax… REEEEEALLY relax. Having sharp focus is even relevant when you’re resting. Take full advantage of times of rejuvenation, so that when you come back to your instrument, you’ve got maximum energy and excitement for how you can bring that music to life!
Got questions? Have relevant experiences you can share with us and our readers? Leave ’em in the comments section so we can learn from you as well.
Sharpening our chops as a musician is a lifelong endeavor. And privilege.
Might as well do it right. Right?! 😉
Best of success to you from all your efforts!!