Bulletproof Musician recently wrote this insightful blog post about how to practice effectively. Perhaps surprisingly, the most important factor doesn’t turn out to be length of practice time, or making few mistakes to begin with. Rather, improvement made during practice depends on how mistakes are addressed.
Progress appears to hinge on the proportion of times that a passage is played correctly. Musicians who stop immediately to understand and correct mistakes, drilling the same passage at a slower tempo until they have mastered it, do best. Those who plow through without taking time to understand the exact nature of the mistake do not fare as well.
This may sound like a basic insight, and it is indeed straightforward. It surprises me, though, that practice length and willpower (a limited resource) are relatively unimportant. Rather, awareness, focus, and corrective action are paramount. If our brains don’t consciously understand what mistake was made, we’ll continue to repeat it. Only by slowing down and figuring it out will we correct it.
I am an imperfect student of the organ, which has become my favorite instrument. I have alternated between taking lessons with a very accomplished organist (and very talented teacher) and studying on my own; currently I do the latter. When I practice, I have some structures in place to keep me honest, such as tracking length of time and the pieces that I practice in a notebook.
I do repeat difficult passages several times, often playing just the pedals, then adding one hand at a time. I do slow down the tempo so my brain can process what I’m doing wrong, and correct it.
However, full disclosure: I don’t do these things consistently. It can be tempting and way too much fun to zoom through Bach preludes & fugues as though skiing on a black diamond. If I wipe out, I may have no idea what happened to get me there, and often little desire to be a detective about it.
I don’t want to return to the bunny slopes. I want to go down a double black diamond again like the big kids, whether or not I’m ready for it.
Playing brings me joy. When I practice today, it’s first and foremost because I love doing it, not because anyone is demanding that I do it. Playing well, however, also brings me confidence and satisfaction. My choice lies in how to preserve the joy and spontaneity of playing for fun, expression and enjoyment, at the same time challenging myself to be rigorous and set the bar high.
In July, I had an opportunity to substitute for St. Anthony’s organist and music director in Jersey City for two weeks. It was a memorable experience, playing sacred music in support of a full choir. Playing with the registration to find the right mixture of sounds, choosing interludes, and conducting a cappella motets all come to mind.
What stands out the most for me, though, is that I was able to play Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G Minor as a postlude. I wouldn’t have been able to do that six months prior. It felt like a crown, a gift that I was able to share with others. I wouldn’t have had that to offer if I’d only zipped down the black diamonds like a speed demon. Methodically slowing down–having the patience, humility and trust to do so–got me to that point.
A confession–I will still play at times like a black diamond skiier. But the more I realize I have it in my power to play well, the more I want to get curious enough to slow down and figure out the parts of a piece that are befuddling me.
My coaching practice is called Passion + Persistence for a reason. Identifying what makes us truly alive and sticking with it (rather than getting derailed) enables us to achieve our life purpose. In the case of music, I could have also named it Practice + Persistence–which apply to so many areas of life!
One reason that I’m challenged to write my blog as often as I did in the past is that I have many creative outlets (such as music). I’m grateful to say that I feel fulfilled. Yet it helps to remind myself that like music, there is no “should” about writing. I enjoy expressing myself through both music and writing, and using them as mediums for connecting with others.
Music, writing, coaching, and connecting with people make me truly alive. What lights you up? I’d love to hear from you.