How do you practice your music? Do you sit down and play a specific piece all the way through, over and over? Do you do the thing where you start at the beginning of a piece, play until you make a mistake, repeat that part until you play it perfectly, and move on — only to make that exact same mistake during your next practice session?
I’ve had sixteen years of piano lessons, so I am very familiar with both of these methods of practicing. These days, my “piano practice sessions” are really more about play — I’ll run through pieces I already know just for the fun of it, or tell myself that if I make it through a new piece enough times, the mistakes will eventually disappear on their own.
And sure, if the piece is easy enough, they do. But I’m not getting any better at my music. I’m not playing anything more complicated than what I studied in high school (even though I performed much more difficult repertoire in college).
Much of this is because I’m practicing the wrong way.
The best musicians focus their practice time on the most difficult parts of the music
Productivity expert Cal Newport recently shared some insights from a pianist on what separates the good musicians from the average ones:
The mistake most weak pianists make is playing, not practicing. If you walk into a music hall at a local university, you’ll hear people ‘playing’ by running through their pieces. This is a huge mistake. Strong pianists drill the most difficult parts of their music, rarely, if ever playing through their pieces in entirety.
The flow state, which is what many of us are going for when we sit down to play through music that’s not too difficult to handle (or playing music that’s a little beyond our skill level and hoping the mistakes will eventually go away), actually prevents us from getting better as musicians. We don’t want to be flowing through our practice sessions. We want to be focusing on the most challenging aspects of the pieces we’re trying to learn.
This is right in line with last month’s post about the difference between play and work: when experiencing the process is more important than creating the product, you play. When the product is more important than enjoying the process, you work.
Right now, my piano sessions are all about play. If I want to get better as a pianist, they’ll have to change.
The best musicians move towards a specific goal
Here’s more advice from the pianist: less skilled musicians focus their practice sessions on how to get through a piece without making any mistakes, while the best musicians focus on how to make the piece sound like the vision they have in their head.
Some of this, no doubt, has to do with these “best musicians” already having developed a certain skillset. It’s hard to get to the point at which you can decide how you want a piece to sound if you’re still figuring out where your fingers are supposed to go.
But if a moderately skilled musician (like me) approached her practice sessions along the lines of “what do I want this piece to sound like, what is the section that is currently preventing me from achieving that sound, and what do I need to do to fix that,” I could probably get much better results.
It’s about what you practice, not how long you practice
If you’re currently thinking “well, that’s great for the people who have hours of time to practice, but I’m lucky if I can squeeze in 30 minutes a day,” a recent study from Royal Society Open Science revealed that the number of hours you put in is less important than the work you do during those hours.
As The Guardian explains:
A study of violinists found that merely good players practised as much as, if not more than, better players, leaving other factors such as quality of tuition, learning skills and perhaps natural talent to account for the difference.
OK, so it’s really more like “the work you do during those hours, the teacher you can afford to hire, and the talent you were born with.” Still — for all of us average or moderately skilled musicians who want to improve, why not start by improving the way we practice?
I know that when I sit down at the piano this evening, I’m going to approach my music a little differently. Instead of playing a piece over and over and hoping the mistakes will eventually iron themselves out, I’m going to focus on a single section until it sounds the way I want it to sound.
And then I’ll continue that kind of practice until it—as the saying goes—makes everything perfect.