You know you need to practice, but it just isn’t interesting. Or maybe you’re not seeing any progress, so you soldier on, getting more frustrated by the day. Or maybe you don’t know what to do in your practice, so you play a few things through and call it done.
I have news for you. Practice may be a daily commitment, but it doesn’t have to be a chore. I commend you for your determination and preseverance, but maybe I can make things easier for you and save you some painful and possibly pointless practice.
Odd as it may seem, just putting your nose to the grindstone is really not the most efficient, effective or interesting way to learn a piece of music. You will find that taking a step back to look at the bigger picture and the end result you want to achieve will take you further faster. And it’s more fun.
Here are three ways to refresh your outlook on your practice. They will help you look forward and focus on what is really essential and important in the music you are playing. This simple shift will help you stop looking at the clock and start making the music you want. And whether you are picking up a piece for the first time, preparing for performance or just reviewing an old friend, this will help you concentrate your efforts and get you to the finish line fast.
1. Understand what the composer is trying to tell you.
Every mark on the page is a direct message from the composer to you the performer. This is in most cases the only way they have to indicate their intentions. With living composers of course, you have at least a possibility of asking them questions. But because composers understand that the printed page is often their only way to communicate with you, they strive for the utmost clarity and precision in their instructions. What? Your piece didn’t come with written instructions? Of course it did. Every note and rhythm, every rallentando or crescendo, each tempo or dynamic marking is an instruction from the composer.
Your job as a responsible and informed musician is to recognize the instructions and use them in your preparation of the music. Be sure that you know the meaning of each marking or musical term and create your interpretation of the piece from those guidelines. You should make this one of your very first steps in learning the piece, and be sure to check regularly in your learning process to be sure that you are still on the right track.
Be assured that this will not stifle your creativity or restrict the individuality of your interpretation. It merely gives you a sound, justifiable basis on which to build. And should you choose to “go rogue” and do somethng vastly different from the composer’s intention, at least you will be doing so on purpose and not by accident.
2. Learn it with the performance in mind.
Obviously the beginning stages of learning a new piece can require lots of figuring things out. You will play slowly at this stage and work in small sections. You will need to learn and adjust fingerings, possibly incorporate new techniques and generally wade into the unknown. But even at this stage you need to be thinking ahead to “playing” the music and not just “practicing” it.
Here’s the difference: instead of waiting until everything is “right” before trying to take a tempo closer to performance tempo, you should be “trying on” the way you will need to perform the piece as soon as possible. Try the first few measures and the last few measures at performance tempo. They may not be smooth and totally correct yet, but this will help your fingers and your mind have the end product in mind. Remember that playing a piece slowly and playing it at tempo take very different skills. Developing the physical and mental coordination necessary to perform the piece well is a long enough process; don’t drag it out by perfecting everything in “practice mode” before you start working on “performance mode.”
3. Make the music.
Music isn’t merely notes and rhythm and all those other components. Real music is an interpersonal communication of an idea, through those components. This is a perfect example of the whole being more than the sum of the parts. The music isn’t just in what you play; it’s in how you play it. If you have any doubt, think about the last time you performed something and were less than pleased with how you played. You probably still received sincere compliments on your performance. Those people who complimented you weren’t listening to the musical nuts and bolts; they were hearing the thought conveyed through them. And that musical thought survived the misplayed notes.
I encourage you to begin to practice with musicality from the very first day of practice on a new piece. It will help you develop your expressive techniques and will allow you to imprint the dynamics and other means of expression deep in your learning of the piece, rather than layering them on at the end. It will also make your practice much more enjoyable. After all, you will be making music!