“You’ve got to think about ‘big things’ while you’re doing small things so that all the small things go in the right direction.”
–Alvin Toffler, author

When we veteran musicians practice, we begin with objectives and learning methods in mind.

If we’re preparing a new composition for a concert, let’s say, we first get an overview of the music. Then, we carve it into sections, identify trouble spots, knit sections together, gradually step up the tempo, and so on. We progressively assemble the composition into concert-ready form.

Do students practice in ways that result in similar steady accomplishment?

I wish I could say yes. In my experience, though, music students who practice efficiently and artfully make up a minority of the student population. Most tend to waste time repeating errors, playing or singing at tempos beyond their control, and otherwise spinning their wheels.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

I believe that students could become more adept at practicing if music schools emphasized the acquisition of practice skills.

Defining Practice
On page 4 of The Musician’s Way, I define practice as “The deliberate, creative process of improving musical ability and of mastering music for performance.” That is, our overarching aims in practice are to advance our foundational skills and prepare music for the stage.

Bear in mind that practice is distinct from casual music making and performing. It’s work, not play, even though it’s soulful and rewarding.

So, to be effective, deep practicers, we need to make smart choices about the material we work on and possess the wherewithal to assimilate it.

Building Technical Prowess
For starters, let’s consider technique. Technique practice should maintain our skills and stretch our proficiency.

To gauge your expertise with technique practice, consider these questions:

  • Have you identified your technical shortcomings and gathered exercises and etudes to overcome your weaknesses?
  • Do you know ways in which to approach technique practice that yield solid results over time?

If you can’t answer ‘yes’ to both of those questions, I invite you to read “Building Technique” on p. 94-98 of The Musician’s Way and then consult a teacher.

You could also consider that pair of questions again, but substitute for the concept of technique other topics such as sight-reading or improvisation. Are your goals and processes clear?

Mastering Repertoire
Now let’s look at repertoire practice. The process of mastering a composition starts from a place of unfamiliarity and culminates with our securely performing the music in public. That process may seem straightforward, but it actually entails numerous elements.

Faced with an untried composition, we have to clarify its expressive and technical ingredients, try out interpretive angles, determine fingerings, unravel difficulties, and so forth. I label this process ‘mapping,’ and you can read about it in detail in Chapter 3 of The Musician’s Way.

With an interpretive/technical map in place, we next select practice tempos, manage repetition, reach consensus with coperformers, and more.

Then there are the issues that surround presenting music in public:

  • Does your repertoire practice enable you to perform securely and artistically?
  • When you work in groups, do you and your fellow musicians attain mutually satisfying results?
  • Can you learn music quickly?
  • Do you have numerous pieces in your repertoire that you can perform without having to practice at length?

Capable practicers answer all of those questions in the affirmative because they’ve amassed inclusive practice skills.

Practice Skills & Music Education
How can music schools help students become better practicers?

Historically, practice skills would be taught (or not) in private lessons. Yet although studio teachers are the ones to cover the idiosyncrasies of instruments, the principles of practice apply universally.

So I find it odd that few schools teach practice principles in classes. I think the time has come for that to change.

One of my motivations in writing The Musician’s Way was to spur courses and seminars that explore music practice and performance, collaboration, self-care, and entrepreneurship. Through such classes, I believe that schools can better outfit students for artistic and professional success.

Related posts
Beautiful repetition
The benefits of accessible music
Optimizing practice time
The power of specific goals

© 2010 Gerald Klickstein

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