Practice makes perfect, so the old adage goes, and as far as I can tell, it’s true. Whether you play the cello or some wacky combination of blinking, velocity-sensitive buttons, you must practice if you have any desire to improve your skill and grow as a performer.
Most musicians and performers have struggled with practicing at one time or another. So hopefully these tips will help you meet that challenge and create a solid foundation for effective practicing.
What is practicing? This might be a difficult question to answer. There are, however, a few things that practicing most certainly is not. Performance, rehearsal and practice are three very different things that have different purposes and each require a unique process and motivation.
Performance is something you do on a stage in front of an audience. Whether you’re playing at Coachella for an audience of 10,000 or at some seedy dive for the sound guy’s girlfriend and that crack head the bouncer hasn’t kicked out yet, the goal is to entertain and engage an audience.
Performance is not practice. Yes, you do get better at performing the more you do it, in the same way that you get better at your instrument the more you practice, but it is important to understand the difference between the two. No one wants to see you learn your part on stage or go back and play a song again when you mess up. This doesn’t engage and entertain an audience.
Practice is also not performance. It is something you do by yourself to improve your skill on an instrument and learn how to play new music. If your friend is in the room with you when you’re practicing, you’re not practicing. You are performing, albeit not very well to a tiny audience. You must practice by yourself.
Rehearsal is something different altogether. It is what you do with other performers to make your part fit with everyone else’s part, improve the cohesiveness of the group and prepare for a performance. You can rehearse as a solo performer as well, but obviously the group aspects don’t apply. Like practicing, you can’t rehearse in front of other people. If the keyboard player’s boyfriend hangs out at rehearsal, you are performing for him.
The most important part of practicing: Consistency, consistency, consistency and I’ll say it a fourth time, consistency. It is far better to practice for ten minutes a day than it is to practice for six hours once a month. I’m not going to quote scientific studies, but they exist. You can read about them on your own if you’re interested, but I recommend just trying it and seeing the results.
Coming up with a consistent routine during a practice session can help too. For example: Warming up for ten minutes, then playing scales for ten minutes, then practicing beat slicing and punching in and out of loops for an hour.
You gotta let your mind breathe! Some people will spend hours and hours practicing and feel like they hit a brick wall, then they just keep hitting it over and over again. Take a break dammit! Breathe, take a five minute walk, let that aria you’ve been singing for the past four hours sink in. Remember, we’re all human and it’s OK that we have physical limits. We just need to work with them not against them.
Don’t be so hasty! You can’t play it fast until you can play it slow. It is way more fun to play things up to tempo, but you will sound far less sloppy if you start slow and practice everything at the same speed. If you can’t play the hard parts fast enough yet, then don’t play the easy parts fast either.
And always use a metronome! I know you hate that little beeping monster, but he is really a musicians best friend. Kind of like a condom, a musicians other best friend. Not using it may feel a little bit nicer, but it will only hurt you in the long run. You’ll have a horrible sense of time and child support bills.
You can’t play if you don’t listen. Yes Beethoven was deaf, but he wasn’t always deaf and you are also not Beethoven. Sorry, no offense. When you learn to play music, you are learning to play a style. How can you know what that style is supposed to sound like if you don’t listen to it? The notes printed on the page aren’t going to tell you that.
This doesn’t mean bumping the latest Lady Gaga single on your Jetta’s stereo while you’re driving to work either. I’m talking about really listening, sitting down with a pair of headphones and completely focusing on the music you are hearing, thinking critically about it and how you can apply what you are hearing to your own playing.
Also, listening to yourself is extremely important. Record your practice sessions and rehearsals every now and then. It doesn’t have to be a high quality mastered recording either. You will be surprised what you’ll notice about your playing. Video or even just a mirror can give you important insights too.
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All of these things are necessary parts of practicing effectively, and it is important to figure out what works best for you and your instrument. Joe Satriani’s exact method of practicing might not be the best thing for you, and that’s OK. We are all different and have different needs. Just don’t lie to yourself, if something is not working then make a change. Only you know what is best for you.
And none of this stuff is easy. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not very good at any of this at all, but that’s OK too. These things take time and patience and you will get better at them over time if you put your mind to it, just like your skill with your instrument.
Hopefully this editorial will give you a good place to start. Feel free to leave any questions in the ‘comments’ section and keep practicing!