Practicing Technique the Right Way

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practicing techniquePracticing technique is a cornerstone of a musician’s long term growth and daily practice habit. But that doesn’t mean that every moment you spend in technical practice will be well-spent.

Technical practice has one very clear objective: to solidify the habits that make it possible to you to play the music you want. A good technical foundation gives you the ability to worry about everything else when you play – notes, tempo, expression and musicality – everything related to what you are trying to play instead of how you will manage to play it.

When you are first learning to play an instrument or to sing, you spend most of your time practicing technique. You will study the basic principles of how you physically produce your sound. You will begin developing the habits that will form the core of your relationship with your instrument.

Later in your studies, you begin addressing the finer points of technique that are necessary for more advanced skills and the demands of more challenging repertoire.

And daily throughout your musical journey you spend time practicing technique to maintain and strengthen correct habits, increase your facility and challenge yourself.

But do you know the secret to effective technical practice?

Just playing scales or exercises is not necessarily enough. Effective technical practice is measured by four essential characteristics for which I use the acronym DEFT.

D: Practicing Technique with Direction

Any technical work you do should have a direction, a goal, a specific desired outcome or a reason you are doing it. The more specific you are in the task you set yourself, the better your results will be. For instance, playing a scale is not specific. Playing a scale while you are checking that every finger has equal tone and dynamic, closes properly and stays relaxed is practice that is directed to very specific outcomes.

For this reason, a daily warm-up may not actually be good or sufficient technical practice.  Take a look at your warm-up. Can you make it strategic and directed toward correcting or maintaining a specific skill or habit?

E: Practicing Technique with Expertise

You don’t need to be an expert to practice your technique, but you do need to become increasingly educated about the fundamental principles of your technique. Simply put, if you don’t know what comprises good technique, you won’t know if you’re practicing it.

Make a list, or ask your teacher to help you make one, of the essential points that you should be developing in your technical practice. Then you will be able to practice with the expertise to know what’s working well and what needs improvement.

F: Practicing Technique with Focus

Turn off the television! It astounds me every time I encounter someone who tells me they practice their scales or exercises while they watch their favorite television program. Technical practice isn’t like walking on a treadmill; you’re not trying just to “put in the time.”

Technical practice done right requires relentless observation. This is the time for your to be your own coach, calling yourself out on any sloppy habits and patting yourself on the back for the things you’re doing well. Your technique won’t get better just because you’ve done an exercise or etude; it improves when you focus on sustaining and developing the proper habits.

T: Practicing Technique over Time

It’s obvious that technique isn’t a “once and done” proposition. A reliable and fluent technique is the product of consistent focused strategic work. You will make more progress with 15 minutes of concentrated technique work daily than you will with an hour once a week or a daily warmup that only brushes the surface.

My favorite way to do this intense kind of technical practice is in a 15 to 20 minute stretch of concentrated, single-focus time. My focus changes from day to day, sometimes focusing on speed, or tone, or patterns or relaxation. But that short intense daily time is what I rely on to keep my fingers in shape.

How will you start practicing technique today?

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  • Lindsay Shelden

    While I don’t go so far as to have the TV on (!) while doing etudes, I do often just “put in the time.” As usual, your advice is simple and brilliant, but requires moving beyond being a passive player and becoming intentional with our work! Breaking out of that “autopilot mode” is a tough change to make, but it seems to be the key to progress. Thank you for this!

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