15 RULES FOR PRACTICING
1) LIMITED TIME FRAME.
We have all heard the axiom “A job expands to fill the time allowed.” This can be expressed differently: “Limit the time to do the work and the work may still get done.” One of the inherent flaws in the weekly lesson template we all use and grew up with is the lack of tight time limitation. If something is not mastered this week, there is always next week, or next month or even next year. This can be mitigated with recitals, festivals, and competitions. However, even with these, we still can put off our work until most of the available time is gone.
In my own playing, once I took my first church job which required me to have hymns, preludes, postludes, etc. ready every week without fail, I found my ability to learn a significant amount of music quickly an absolute necessity for survival. At first, I was not terribly successful and relied upon the art of “fake” more than I should have. But through the years there has been more “play” and less “fake”.
2) LIMITED MATERIAL.
As someone whose eyes have always been larger than my ability or time available, I have had to learn the value of limiting the amount of material I work on at a time. I also discovered through my cognitive psychological research that there are some pretty strong scientific reasons for limiting the amount of material one studies at a time.
There are no hard rules as to how much material can be handled but there are a number of principles which impact this. To start with there is the size of our short term memory (STM), when the STM is full (usually 5 – 7 “chunks” of material it will begin to dump information and unless it is immediately rehearsed it will be lost. The amount of material, or number of notes which can be put into a chunk (the technical term BTW) is influenced by our ability to recognize patterns and group notes by these patterns. Theoretically you could hundreds of notes into a chunk. I would imagine the stories of prodigies such as Mozart reflect his ability to quickly recognize note patterns and identify and store them quickly and efficiently.
I have toyed with writing a book about this whole process, but seem to need to limit my material at this time. This is a long and complex subject, but the key point would be to try working on shorter segments at a time and see if your learning rate doesn’t improve.
3) Different Perspectives
Ask anybody whose job involves a significant amount of problem solving and one of their most important techniques is to look at the problem from as many different perspectives as possible. Sometimes it is only after taking a fresh and different perspective can we find an answer.
In music learning this can take the form of studying melodic development or harmonic patterns, especially if this material had been neglected up until now. It could also mean memorizing a passage backwards, ie, the last measure, then the next to last measure and so on until the passage is learned. This is great for Bach Fugues.
As teachers we are ideally teaching our students as many techniques or methods as possible because if we are successful, these students of ours will continue to play and learn music long after lessons have stopped. They need as many tools as we can give them.
4) HARD STUFF FIRST.
As a river will seek the route of least resistance, left to our own devices we will do the same. It is much more pleasant to play music which is easy from either being not very challenging or has been previously learned. Trying something new or especially hard requires much more discipline than playing a piece learned many years ago.
This also applies to difficult sections within a piece. A difficult passage may require four, five, ten or a hundred times as much time and effort as the rest of the work. If that extra effort is not made, the passage will never become as easy as the rest of the music. Unless it is attacked early and hard it will always be the weak spot within the larger work. We all know where these problem areas are; if we start with them and work on the “hard stuff first” the piece will progress evenly and quickly without the constant drag of the “hard stuff”.
One of the greatest lessons a student can learn in the course of learning to play a musical instrument is the importance of prioritization. In every week’s assignment there are greater and lesser difficulties and higher and lower priorities. Learning to order one’s work so that the maximum is accomplished with the greatest efficiency is one of the keys to success in life. Musical study provides a microcosm where you can learn this lesson.
Each week there are some items which are critical for immediate master (recitals and contests provide these nicely) and other items of less importance. Learning to address the critical without neglecting the less important is a life’s lesson we all can revisit.
6) MENTALLY ACTIVE “HOW CAN I REMEMBER THAT NOTE?”
I shudder to think about how much time I wasted in my own practice with mindless repetition. I would often play scales and my literature with thoughtless and endless repetition; hoping somehow that I would learn the music and usually through brute effort eventually succeeding.
As I got older and busier and the literature I was playing became greatly more complex I realized I needed to become more efficient and productive in my efforts. One of the breakthroughs was learning to ask the question: “How can I remember that note?”
This question causes one to look for relationships between passages, relationships within passages; anything which would aid in understanding the function and purpose of each individual note.
The boarder understanding of a note’s relationship to the rest of the work allows you to bring a fuller musical understanding to bear in addition to aiding memory.
7) THE KISS PRINCIPLE.
One of my favorite rules is: Keep It Simple Stupid! I am often guilty of analyzing a passage or even a written performance instruction to death.
This also reminds us that simplicity is the beginning of expression. We should project the central idea or line and then all else becomes secondary. Playing too many important things makes for a cacophonous mess, or is simply a case of lazy playing. Think about the single most important element and make sure that is clear first.
Many editors also will suggest elaborate fingering schemes which add unnecessary layers of difficulty to otherwise simple passages. I am not nearly smart enough to remember all of this fancy finger dancing so I always choose simple, easy to remember fingering patterns.
8) DISTRIBUTED PRACTICE.
We have all been guilty of trying to cram for a test, or writing a paper the night before it is due. What is the usual outcome? Not good! The human mind needs time to fully absorb new information, neurological pathways take time to form and become stable. Part of becoming a professional musician is the ability to absorb and perform music in as short of a time as possible. However this ability is really a reflection of solid earlier study which created a broad familiarity with a particular type of music. Taking time to carefully learn something new, giving yourself time to revisit the material many times over many days or months is the surest way to fully absorb and integrate this new material.
9) LISTEN IN DEPTH
Back in my student days it was a cumbersome or nearly impossible to listen to different interpretations of a work one right after the other. The school library may have a few duplicate recordings but not many. Today you can hear dozens of different renditions on YouTube of just about anything. Try this exercise: Listen to the first minute of a work played by four or five different musicians. Do it again and this time observe the different details of tempo, dynamics, articulation. Observe how the music changes as these details are changed. How does tempo change the character of the melody? How does the articulation change your focus of attention? Is there a counter melody somewhere in the accompaniment? How does this affect the texture? A great piece of music cannot be played fully all at once; it contains more material than can be brought out in a single performance. Learning to listen below the surface can open a whole new horizon of understanding.
10) DO IT RIGHT, NOW.
Your subconscious mind records your actions without judgment. It doesn’t know you missed the F# again, and AGAIN! Every mistake becomes part of your learning. That repeated mistake will to take on a life of its own, like a monster from a horror flick; it never dies and has a hundred lives to torment you with.
Slow, careful practice is the only route to success, to speed up before you have cleaned up will simply give you a fast mess.
There is no time like the present to be perfect!
11) KNOW THE LANGUAGE.
Music is a foreign language and it has many dialects. There is vocabulary, grammar and syntax, meaning and context. As with any language, the better you understand all of its subtleties, the better you can express yourself in that language.
If you compare the harmonic language of Bela Bartok with Serge Rachmaninov’s you can see a significant difference in their use of dissonance even though they lived at the same time. The most stringent dissonances in Rachmaninov’s music would be almost consonant in Bartok’s music.
Understanding the syntax of music allows for a quicker and more accurate recognition of patterns and structure. Without this understanding everything is meaningless randomness which happens to sound nice. While French may be pleasing to listen to as a harmonious language, I have no idea of the meaning behind those sounds so my appreciation and understanding is severely limited.
12) EAT AN ELEPHANT.
The only way to eat an elephant is also the only way you can learn a 30 minute concerto: one bite at a time, any more and you will choke on it.
13) THE LOVE OF SPEED IS THE ROOT OF ALL EVIL.
I say this as a lover of speed. I have worn out many metronomes in my life, not from throwing them out of frustration, but from use. I work meticulously to achieve my ambitious tempo goals and then exceed them by 10% to ensure ease. Yet all too often I get caught up on faster and forget there is more to music than speed. Many times there is a lot less music with more speed. Finding the balance between a tempo with brings life and one which crushes music is a constant struggle.
14) ENDING IS BEGINNING OR BEGINNING IS ENDING.
I have found two meanings for this rule, one practical and one life changing.
First the practical. Left to our own devises we will start our work at the beginning and work our way to the end. Cognitive science explains some of the phenomenon we experience with this approach. The two primary challenges we encounter involve issues of interference and recency. Interference occurs when new or old material will block or interfere with recall. Sometimes the new material is similar enough to the old material as to create a conflicted memory. (This happens a lot in music!) Recency is the principle that we remember the most recent event better than older events. If we start at the beginning and play to the end we will remember the beginning well because it is the beginning and had our clearest focus; and the end almost as well because it is recent. But the middle is some kind of vague muddle of notes we know we played but have no idea what we did.
If you begin at the end and work backwards toward the beginning; first leaning the last measure and then the next to last measure, playing both; and then adding another measure and so on; each measure has a chance to be the beginning. Your retention of the middle is greatly enhanced.
A few years ago, while reviewing my repertory list I realized that I had learned about 1/3 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Into my silly head popped this notion that it would be a good thing to learn and play them all as preludes and postludes at my church. It took several years to complete this project of playing the entire set of sonatas sequentially. When I finally completed the project and had a chance to look back on my work I had a profound sense of what the poet T. S. Elliot meant by:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
15) TWO HANDS AT A TIME, ALL OF THE TIME.
When I was a young student, my teacher insisted I first learn each hand separately and only then play both hands together. I found this more than a little frustrating. I always felt I had to start all over again when I put my hands together; all of the proceeding work with hands separate was a waste. Eventually in a pique of rebelliousness I quit playing with my hands separately, except for when I was asked to do so in a lesson.
I have often wondered about where the notion of learning each hand separately originated. I can picture a scenario like this: JS Bach tells CPE Bach he should pay extra attention to the right hand passage he continuously mis-plays. CPE tells his student he should play the right hand a couple times to fix a problem. Beethoven then tells his student Czerny that his right hand is very sloppy and he needs to fix it before the next lesson or he will use the ruler. Finally Czerny tells everybody to practice each hand separately.
So let’s break the cycle. The piano is a two handed instrument requiring a constant partnership between the hands. A good sight reader doesn’t run through each hand before playing, he just plays both hands immediately.
Now before you completely write me off as a crank, I will allow brief hands separate work but only in the interest of clarification of technical details and fingering. After that put them together!