When it comes to improving at anything (especially music!) through practice, I often think of Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity. I’m paraphrasing here, but it goes something like this: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again the same way, but expecting a different result.”
Or as a dear friend of mine would say: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.” This is precisely the trap that many musicians fall into when it comes to practicing.
As human beings we are constantly trying to make sense and find order in our world. For this reason most of us love to have a routine (even though we may complain about it from time to time).
Practicing music daily is a form of ritualistic behavior, a manifestation of routine. It is more than just preparing for performance. It is reconnecting to our instrument, to our aesthetic impetus, to our most personal and expressive selves. And with most of us, it’s a constant quest for growth and improvement.
But there is often a conflict within us: We want to grow, but we don’t want the process of growth to be too unfamiliar. We want to feel each day that we’re stepping into the known territory of our beliefs about what makes a “productive” practice session.
For that reason we tend to solidify our practice routines into something that seems symmetrical and tangible. “First I do this, then that, then that for 15 minutes, then that in these keys, in this order…”
The truth of the matter is that for you to improve you have to be willing to step into the unfamiliar.
Or as F.M. Alexander said, in order to learn we must go from the “known to the unknown”. As obvious as that seems, you might be surprised to see how reluctant you are in your practice routine to step too far from what you know.
This doesn’t mean that you’re only practicing things that are easy for you to play (if you are, understand that that’s one of the main obstacles towards growth). It might also mean that you are struggling with the same thing in your music making, whether it be something technical or artistic, even though you’ve been working on it for years.
If you’ve plateaued in your progress with a particular technical (or aesthetic) aspect of your playing, not really improving for a long time, it’s probably because of what you’re practicing (and/or how you’re practicing it). You’ve been persistent in your effort to improve in this particular area, but to no avail (see Einstein’s definition of insanity above).
But here’s where you have to be persistent in a different way: You have to be persistently re-evaluating the effectiveness of your practice routine.
This means always aiming to change what you do in your practice to find new ways to grow and improve. Here are a few things to consider to help you with this:
- Don’t spend too much time practicing the things you can already do-Musicians often waste a considerable amount of time practicing things they can already play. For example, if you can play a particular exercise or pattern fairly easily in all twelve keys except for Db and Gb, don’t spend an equal amount practicing it in all twelve keys. Spend the bulk of your time on the unfamiliar (in this case, Db and Gb).
- Learn to stop– There’s no point in “playing something through to the end” if you’re encountering the same difficulty in the same place every time you practice it. Get comfortable with stopping the moment something isn’t going quite right. Then give yourself a chance to discern what the problem is so that you can do something different to solve it. Once you’ve come up with a new strategy to approach this problem, apply it a few times to see if it’s going to be helpful.
- Let yourself be wrong-Learn to sound bad without loosing your composure: lose the tempo, play out of tune, play the wrong notes, let the articulation fall apart, etc. Getting comfortable with hearing yourself make mistakes while you practice will open up a whole new world of growth possibilities. It will encourage you to try new things, and shift the focus of your practice from immediate results, to quality of process. Often I find great new exercises by “mistake” in this manner.
- Understand clearly what you’re practicing, and why you’re practicing it-Be clear in your objectives about how you wish to improve and grow. As you approach each exercise in your practice routine, ask yourself, “Why am I practicing this?” and, “How will it help me?” You should be able to easily answer this if your clear about your objectives. What you choose to practice either serves your objective or it doesn’t.
- Evaluate the quality of your practice over time-As stated earlier, if you’re playing the same exercise day after day for many weeks or months (years, even!) to help you with a particular aspect of your musical skill, and you’re not showing any improvement, consider throwing that exercise away. Never mind that somebody you really respect recommended it to you. Just because it works for them doesn’t mean it works for you. Explore and find something else.
- Be flexible with the order of your practice routine-Once you’ve warmed up, allow yourself to change the order of what you practice every day. You might be surprised in doing this that you find greater efficiency, focus and enjoyment with your practice. There is no such thing as the best order that works for every practice session. How you’re feeling and playing that day can help you determine the most logical (and most productive!) order of your practice routine.
- Balance the known with the unknown-It’s important that you have a satisfactory experience when you practice. As you explore and re-evaluate your practice routine, try to keep a balance between what is comfortable and what pushes you into new terrain. If all you do when you practice is seek the unfamiliar, not only will you never solidify what you practice, but also, you”ll never let yourself have a chance to enjoy sounding good. So reward yourself at every practice session with the kinds of things that are easy to play and bring pleasure to you.