Updated: May 17
“I didn’t have time to practice this week; I had a birthday party/sports event to go to.”
“I didn’t get much practicing done; it was really busy at work/school.”
“I can only practice at my grandma’s house, ‘cause she has a piano. She lives in Spokane.”
“I left my music at Dad’s/work/my boyfriend’s place, so I couldn’t practice.”
Every music teacher I’ve ever known has heard all of these, and a hundred more. From child, teenaged and adult students, from parents and grandparents of students… there are always a million reasons why a student didn’t practice.
To be honest, all those excuses don’t bother me too much. At least they demonstrate an acknowledge-ment that practicing should be happening, even though it didn’t. The ones that shock me are the students who seem to feel that having to practice at home is a failure by the teacher, somehow. As though the half-hour or hour-long lesson, once a week, (as long as nothing else comes up) should be enough to show dramatic improvement in one’s ability to play an instrument or sing. (It’s really not.)
We discuss the concepts in your lesson. We may review the notes, and we talk about phrasing. But you haven’t actually learned anything yet. I don’t know whether or not I agree with the “10,000 hours rule” popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (the “rule” that states that it takes approximately 10000 hours of “deliberate practice” to develop expertise in something), but I know it takes more than 5-10 minutes of lesson time for something to truly become part of my “knowledge bank.”
A lot of playing (or singing) music is about muscle memory. We need a great deal of repetition to know what it feels like to sing a phrase beautifully, or to play a rhythm exactly right, or to play or sing an interval precisely in tune. It is only through practicing that we develop that memory, which will enable us to do it again, the same way, every time.
Playing music isn’t just like working out. It is a workout (albeit, often of different, smaller muscle groups than you work out at the gym). And like any good workout, it’s better if you don’t just do it once and then never do it again. Once a week at the gym is better than never going. One music lesson a week is better than no music in your life at all. But every day (or every other day, or whatever your schedule is) is better. You get stronger faster. You can see the difference quickly, and that encourages you to keep going. It’s exactly the same for music.
Listen- I know there’s a lot going on in your life. Mine too. Everybody’s. It’s hard to eke out time for everything we have to do in a week. And here’s the sad fact. It’s never going to get better. We always think that “as soon as school is out,” or “as soon as I finish training at this new job,” or “as soon as the baby is sleeping through the night,” I’ll have more time (well, that last one might actually be true; I don’t know). The fact is that we’re all busy, and there will always be things we need to do and want to do, and we have to make time for the things that are important to us.
The good news is that we can find that time, and it doesn’t have to be too much of a hassle. It doesn’t even have to be too much time. Ten minutes to do a vocal warmup, and then we sing along with our favorite tunes in the car while we’re running errands. Or a few minutes of stretching, followed by working on the 8 hardest measures of the song we’re trying to learn for the next lesson. Just a few minutes every day will make you better than you were before. And as you get better, the “practicing” becomes “playing,” and the whole process becomes a relaxing, enjoyable time to do something for yourself.
Here are a few tips to make your practice time more effective:
Warm up. Regardless of the instrument you’re playing, you will accomplish more in less time if your muscles are warm and your mind is focussed. Do some breathing exercises, stretch your arms and fingers, play a few scales or easy exercises, sing a few warmup exercises – whatever it takes to make you feel ready to play at your best for the rest of your practice session.
Try not starting at the beginning of the song. Chances are, you’ve already figured out the first 4, or 8, or 16 measures. Just for today, start with the last 4 measures. Then do the last 8, then the last 12, etc. Working non-chronologically through the song gives your brain the chance to actually work out everything that’s happening, and then by the time you’ve worked your way back to the beginning, the whole song fits together.
Analyze your piece to find the patterns, and repeated sections. In a song with verses, choruses, and a bridge, the chances are that the hardest part is the bridge: the part of the song that only occurs once. So spend some time working on that one section, until the “hard part” comes easily.
Avoid just thinking “this is hard.” I hear this phrase often from my students, and I tell them that it’s ok to think something is hard, but that’s not the end of the story. I tell them that when they think the words “this is hard,” to add on “but I can do it.” This technique helps you to keep from feeling defeated by a particularly complicated phrase, fingering or rhythm.
Switch up your practicing method. If you find yourself “clockwatching” because you’ve set yourself a time limit for practicing, take that pressure away by setting yourself a different type of goal. Instead of practicing for 20 minutes, decide that you’ll practice until you can play measures 12-24 three times in a row without making a mistake. Or vice versa. If you’ve gotten to the point where it feels like you will never get the ending to that song right, give yourself 5 more minutes, and if you still can’t get it, move on to something else.
“Take a run at it.” See if you can start from the beginning and play through to the end, without editing yourself. Imagine you had to play that song in front of an audience tomorrow. Sometimes, just being able to get through a song without stopping, even if you’ve made a few mistakes, can make you feel better. After all, professional musicians make “mistakes” all the time… but if we just keep going and play with confidence, almost no one will ever know the difference!
Don’t forget that the operative word is “play.” Have fun in your practicing! Experiment with different dynamics, with different fingerings, with another way to sing the words. You may find something that works really well for you that you hadn’t thought of before.
Ultimately, our practicing sessions are where the real learning takes place. So it’s important to fit in some time in our busy schedules to put into action the concepts we’ve worked on in our lessons. To make them part of our actual knowledge, so that at the next lesson, we’re ready for more!