We all know that “practice makes perfect” is a stretch of the truth, but most of us agree that practice is the only way to get better at anything, particularly music performance. But if our practice isn’t consistent, neither will our performance be consistent. Remember the tortoise and the hare? The tortoise’s steady, consistent pace got him over the finish line. And consistency in your practice can do the same.
Stephen King the writer has been very public about the discipline he brings to his craft. The diligence and consistency which he applies to his writing have enabled him to become one of America’s best-selling and most celebrated authors.
But his own words about his writing process have surprised many. He says, “When asked, ‘How do you write?’ I invariably answer, ‘One word at a time,’ and the answer is invariably dismissed. But that is all it is. It sounds too simple to be true, but consider the Great Wall of China, if you will: one stone at a time, man. That’s all. One stone at a time.”
And music practice is very similar. Practice isn’t a mysterious magical fire that you must pass through before performing. It is a gradual refining and crafting that increases our skills, knowledge and capabilities which enable us to meet new challenges.
And the more consistent our practice process is, the better results we will achieve.
Here are four key areas in which I believe consistency yields big rewards.
1. Time. Consistency in this area means the daily habit of practice. Practice must be something you do every day for a set length of time. Practice time is preparation time. Whether you have an upcoming performance or not, you are preparing yourself to become a better musician. Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, founder of the Suzuki learning method, was very clear with his students, saying, “Practice only on the days you eat.”
2. Technique. You will not play with a good technique unless you practice consistently with one. Your technique is the foundation of every note you play. A well-developed technique allows you to play fast passages smoothly. It enlarges your expressive abilities by giving you a repertoire of different articulations, dynamics and phrasing.
Every practice session should include a time for reviewing and solidifying technique. Simple scales and arpeggios are very effective. Even when you practice your repertoire, you must be aware of your technique at all times. In my own experience, about 90 percent of mistakes can be corrected by addressing the underlying technical issue.
3. Attention to detail. Developing the habit of watching and listening to the little things will dramatically speed up your music learning. You should not only be watching out for wrong notes or rhythms as you play, but you should pay attention to all the qualities of musical expression as well.
When I need to remind a student frequently about the dynamics of a piece she has been learning, I know that she may have been learning the “notes” but hasn’t thought much about the “music.” She has been missing the fun part of practice – truly making music. Here’s an extra benefit – learning to consistently notice and use the appropriate dynamics and phrasing as you first learn a piece, rather than waiting until you know the notes better, develops skills important for sightreading.
4. Attitude. Consistency in your attitude is the most important habit to cultivate. It means learning to set goals for your work, so your practice is focused. It means dividing big projects into small steps to lead you steadily toward that goal, and doing those small steps every day. And it means remembering that practice is not the drudgery of your day; it’s how you get to Carnegie Hall.