►About practicing a musical instrument

So, lately I’ve been working full-time as a classical guitar teacher, finally I have the job I always wanted.

In this context, I’ve been noticing that up to a certain level of experience, most aspiring guitarists – and not only kids, some of my students are adults – have a serious difficulty in learning the right habits and methods of practice.

I think this isn’t limited to guitarists, I think it happens to many aspiring musicians, I won’t even limit this to classical music.

And it is not necessarily linked to their talent (or lack of) or capacity of discipline and dedication.

So, what exactly am I referring to?

Them practicing for quite a long time, yet not managing to solve certain difficulties or not managing to improve all the exercises or pieces I gave them.

Often the problem is this: they play the exercise or piece over and over, from the beginning to the end, and as if that wasn’t enough, they often try to reach final tempo without having solved technical difficulties at slow tempo first.

So, I thought it could be interesting for some people out there, if I’d write down, right here, what I usually try to explain to them.

How to practice a musical instrument correctly:

• Choose a place where you won’t be bothered and that is silent enough so you can hear yourself very well. It should also have a “positive” acoustic, I mean, it should sound nicely to you, a room with a cold sound or an uncontrolled reverberation can really take the pleasure from playing. Ah, and temperature should be nice, avoid a place that’s too hot or too cold.

• Have a clear idea of what you are going to work (this is something the teacher should help to make clear – point out priorities and what is expected at the next lesson, for example) – if you just “start playing around” it’s hard to accomplish anything.

• Start with something that helps to “warm-up” your fingers – it doesn’t have to be technical exercises, but I really recommend that – a little technique should always be part of your practice. For minimum, stay at this half an hour, or until you feel your fingers are “warm”, but if you want to improve technique or a specific exercise, try to work on this a little longer.

• Then pick up the musical piece your teacher has given priority for next lesson, or, if that’s not the case, pick the piece that you know you’re having most difficulty or have made less progress yet – or that you have less time to prepare for a certain goal.

Now, you have to think first: if the piece is ready for being played as a whole, then you can start with playing it once, from beginning to end, to get “focused”. If it’s not ready yet (if you encounter major difficulties, failures or have to stop repeatedly while playing, then it’s not ready), avoid playing the whole piece.

In this case, begin with the section, part or musical phrase you feel that needs more work, and then continue to the second difficult/less well prepared part/phrase, etc. If it’s a long piece, divide it into several parts. This is where musical analysis is needed – you should have done a basic formal and harmonic analysis to the piece prior starting to play it. Give priority to the parts you know that are less well practised.

While working like that, if you encounter something that you’re simply not able to play most of times because of technical difficulty, many notes simultaneously and not having it by heart yet, speed, sound, dynamics or any other reason, stop and isolate this phrase or section. Try to really locate the problem, “zooming in” to just one measure, a few notes, or even just two notes. When you have found it, practice that little bit of music over and over, until feeling some improvement.

If problem is speed, start slowly.

But do not repeat without making a little break between each repetition – to avoid getting tired, risk of injuries or just to avoid starting to play with auto-pilot – you need to be able to think about what you just played and improve according to that. So you have to listen carefully.

Don’t try to solve it in one session, though, unless you feel you’re almost there, because, remember: you probably have lots of other little bits like this one, probably even lots of other pieces, so don’t loose control and overview of your time. Also, don’t go too far: if you reach the point of fatigue, you won’t be able to improve anymore, so after some time you should move on to another problematic section/phrase.

After a little bit – hopefully having felt some improvement – progress to the next “problem” or to the next section.

And when you feel you dedicated enough time to the piece, go to the next piece, again following clear hierarchy of priority (leave the piece you have most well prepared to the end, because if for some reason you get interrupted or have to finish your practice session earlier than planned – or you might also get “hung up” for more time than planned on some difficulty you really need to solve – then at least you will not leave out any piece that really needs practice).

When you feel that a piece is getting ready for practice at what we call “performance level” (it means you can play the piece at final tempo (or close to) and with all musical, technical and acoustical problems clearly managed), you will have to change strategy for that piece:

• Go through the piece, once, from beginning to end, with the score in front of you, slowing down only on difficult passages – maybe repeating them sometimes, but then move on – or, if you have little time, pick out directly those passages.

• Then, put away the score and play the piece once from beginning to end, by heart, and with maximum concentration, imagining you were playing it at a concert (or really play it to some friend or relative). When you reached the end, look back and analyse carefully how you did. What went well, what went less well, what did you like, what part do you think needs improvement, where did you feel insecure, etc…

• After this critical reflection, get the score and go through the piece again, picking out those passages you stated that need improvement, and work each of them exactly according to what needs to be done (for example: improve memorization, sound, control, dynamics, etc…).

I could add many more tips and details to this post, but I think it would get way too big, so I’ll finish for now, and maybe write a follow-up one day with some more ideas.

Hope that this can be useful for some of you, and now: stop surfing the internet and start practicing, hehehe! 😛

Musical Instrument Practice Humor
A funny pic that says it all, about practicing a musical instrument... (Found on the internet, credit belongs to the original author, it's NOT mine)