Wednesday, October 8, 2008

How to Master Practicing a Musical Instrument

Learning to master the discipline of practicing a musical instrument

The amount of time spent practicing will make or break you. Period. And at first most of us don’t like to practice, we see it as a "must do" as opposed to a "want to do" kind of thing, and we all have many other things we’d rather do. So how do you practice 30 minutes, an hour, 2 hours, or 3 hours plus, every single day? Well, it can be done. I practiced 6 and 7 hours a day for many years, and still practice at least 2-3 hours every day. To get to that point there are many things I have learned.

First off, if no one practiced there’d be no musicians. So some have figured out how to get it done. The thinking goes like this:

If we all woke up every morning to a new day, and as the day went along had to figure out when we’d be able to get our practicing in for that day, it just wouldn’t get done. A musician’s time is the same as anyone else’s. So there must be a different way to approach it, and there is.

When I was first faced with practicing daily, in 5th grade, I was no different than anyone else in that I didn’t mind practicing all that much once I got going, but I assumed I didn’t have the time, and as a young kid I didn’t want to work much. Laziness is an art in 5th grade. So my having to decide when I was going to practice, worrying slightly about it all day, in itself, was more effort than I wanted to take on. So it seemed to me that deciding that a certain block of time, each day, agreed upon beforehand, a slot that was the same for each day, would make things easier and solve a lot of problems. So after carefully reviewing the TV Guide (The main source of my other and what I considered more important, "Commitments"), I decided I could afford, as a 5th grader, to devote 30 minutes from 7 to 7:30 to practicing my trumpet. With that determination followed a few simple "rules" that lead to aspects of accomplishing my practice responsibilities that eventually fell into place-

1. That half hour would be "my" time. I made an agreement with my parents that they couldn’t come pounding on the door, yelling something about "I don’t hear any trumpet playing going on!" at 3 minutes after 7. At 7 I went in, 7:30 I came out. End of story. Of course you will hear trumpet playing going on. And it will be what I can get in during that half hour. But I can’t be expected to play non-stop for 30 minutes, starting immediately.

2. I’d know going in what I would be doing. Later I studied with DavidB.Evans in L.A. for over 20 years, and I’d follow a set routine. Similar idea. In 5th grade it was a brief warm-up, some lip slurs, work on band music, then play pieces for fun from songbooks. In later years my routine would take 5 and 6 hours of calisthenics and literature studies, covering all aspects of my playing. But I have always attempted to keep what I had to do, the "plan" for that day, as simple as possible. Open a stave book with the routine written out. Pile of books on stand, go to first book and the exercise listed in routine, play it. Go to next book. Etc.

3. I’d be sure to stay engaged. I listened to my sound, tonguing, paid attention, learned what I could, set out from the start to master what I was working on and then move on in the material. I had heard often that it’s not what you play, it’s how you play it, but I never really understood what that meant. But I figured that I shouldn’t just slog through the material because I had to. Sometimes doing what had to be done could be a bit of a slog, but I knew the only way to get to put any particular exercise behind me was to learn it and be done with it. By contrast I have had students that practice for months to a metronome (because I assigned them to), who actually never made the effort to really play along with it as they should. For them doing something as it should truly be done was "too much work". It just ticks off in the background. All they want to do is the absolute minimum, characteristic of how many young students do everything in their lives. They stay disengaged, disinterested and fundamentally lazy about doing what they are supposed to do. Then, along with that, they hold little confidence of their doing well. Gradually getting better through any effort eventually overcomes these low self expectations, and leads to growth in every other aspect of their lives. But there are far too many students that never experience that growth. Don’t be one of those students.

4. Work hard not to be one that looks for every excuse NOT to have to practice. The best thing you can do for a cold, or a sore throat is to practice. As a horn player it opens the breathing passageways, gently stimulates circulation and continues the body’s need to continue a normal activity. There have been many times that I have been very, very ill, have always practiced, often propped up on a pillow so I can play. It’s what I do. With each day that I don't play I set myself back, undoing everything I had done on my horn up to that point. Doc Severinson used to say, "One day missed and I notice, two days missed and the band notices, 3 days missed and the audience notices." Another saying generally believed is that each day you miss requires 2 days of playing to return to where you were. 2 days requires 4, 4 requires 8, etc. This is never a bad way to look at it, and in many ways it’s correct. However, it does happen that after a particularly long stretch of tough performances your body occasionally needs to take a day off, but those types of days never happen in 5th grade!

5. Rest as you practice. Some even say to rest equally with the time you play. If I say I have practiced 6 hours in a day, a substantial portion of that time is resting between exercises. In that six hours of practicing, there may be only 4 to 4.5 hours of solid playing. However, I did sit in front of the music stand, focusing on the material, the entire 6 hours.

6. Try not to play in pain. If playing becomes painful when you are practicing, stop, rest, and try again. If the pain can’t be overcome, allow yourself to heal by ending for the day. But again, the kind of pain I’m talking about rarely comes about until well into high school and beyond, and only as a result of hard, extended playing in marching bands, etc.

7. There is no mechanical device that will cause you to play better without practice. Many technological advances in an instrument’s construction allow for us to play as well as man ever has on many instruments. Some of the technological improvements in my current instrument allow for me to play far longer than I used to without fatigue, but nothing has saved even a minute of practice or simple "time behind the mouthpiece" that needed to be done.

8. When you are playing beyond the usual amount of time other people practice, know that you are working after others have called it a day. I was told years ago that when in competition with others you must eat, sleep and breathe your playing, or someone that is will take your spot. On a smaller scale this can apply to anyone at any level of ability.

9. I practice wherever I am. I always have my horn with me, even when on vacation, etc., and often practice in the car, parked somewhere. I used to get home from a day job at 11PM, eat something, jump in the car and then drive to a local supermarket where I’d sit under a street lamp in the parking lot and play until 3 or 4AM. The local cop would stop by to chat once in a while, and no one ever noticed, much less had reason to bother me. This applies all year long- in the winter I’d have the car idling with the heater on.

10. If at all possible, locate a good teacher. I can not underestimate the overwhelming value of having a teacher you respect and appreciate assisting you through this journey. To this day I still practice out of respect for a great teacher that stood by me and taught me all that I know.

11. Then once your playing for the day is done, it’s done, and forget about it until tomorrow.

Achieving the consistent accomplishment of a practice routine and gradually reaching an adequate level of discipline to practice enough to keep improving is not easy to do. My experience as a teacher combined with my own growth and experience has convinced me that learning to carve a block of time into your day to practice needs to begin by no later than about 7th grade, and starting by 4th- 5th grade is ideal. This is why as a 4-12th grade band director I have fought hard to create established programs by 6th grade, but have routinely met with resistence from administrators that are determined to "let kids experience, pick and choose" until well into high school. By then it is too late. Students will rarely accomplish to grade level when begun so late, and will never be ready to compete against others if they choose to audition into a college music program by their junior or senior years in high school. Most school administrators do not know or have experience with the process and discipline of mastering a genuine fine art or a skilled ability. For most people, there is nothing they have done that approaches this type of committment.

Parents often ask me if they should force their students to practice. The problem with that is that playing an instrument should never be about power plays between you and your child, resistance, rebellion or their fighting your authority. Nor should it ever be about their being begged to do something they absolutely do not want to do. Yes, broader issues of responsibility, work ethic and self discipline are at stake here, but fundamentally your student is learning to play a musical instrument- a skill which should be affirming, positive and ultimately enjoyable. Your student should recognize the opportunity to create something special- I tell students that learning to play is exactly the same as learning to speak, and that the sound they produce will always be uniquely theirs, a voice that the world has never heard before or since. A parent should allow for their child to explore their instrument gradually, with respect for both the instrument and the child’s ability to play it. Once the decision to play is made, quitting should never be an option. Obviously, allowing students to routinely quit simply because they want to at the moment shouldn't be considered. Making recordings of their progress can be encouragement, as well as having recordings of performances by professional musicians going on around the house for the child to listen to must be provided. If your child refuses to practice their clarinet or play at home for enjoyment, and have never heard the original clarinet introduction in "Rhapsody in blue" or don't know who Benny Goodman is- then the fault of their lack of interest doesn't lie entirely with them.

Lastly, anyone can play, and anyone can become a great musician. The size of someone's fingers, lips or whatever is totally irrelevant, regardless of what anyone tells you. A child of small stature can still play the tuba, thin lips can still play trumpet, etc. If the child is willing to work for it through practice, anything is possible. Parents often cite a "natural gift" their child has to pick out melodies on the piano, or to make a sound on an instrument, as if that will help them or is somehow required to play well. The truth is, based on my experience, those who rise to become professional musicians were often not the ones for whom things initially came easily. Those that rose to the top are those that learned early to work at it. In fact, the "talented" ones often don't last long past when their "talent" is no longer there to make things easier for them. Some natural ability may ease the path into learning to play when first beginning, but it will never reduce or replace the amount that they, just like everyone else, needs to practice.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hi PiedPiper,

Wonderful post, and I enjoyed every bit of reading it!

I was actually curious to know about Steinway and restoration processes, and landed on this blog.

I am sure most people would still want to work on their Steinway and even if it gets damaged some way or another.

If I owned a Steinway I would want to have it repaired because Steinway is one of the finest instruments built by hand.

The difficulty that most of the owners of antique Steinway Grand Piano face is lack of adequate after-service for Steinway.

I understand that expert services for piano restoration are available at:

I was also interested in knowing how piano restoration work is done, and found an impressive video at:

Thanks again for the wonderful site that you have here, keep up the good work!!


Bhaskar Karampudi