Whether or not you believe in the '10,000 hours to become an expert' or '21 days to make or break a habit' philosophy, one thing we can all agree on about practicing is this: if you like doing something, you generally do it more often. If you want to make practicing your instrument, songwriting, or production techniques a daily habit, here are a few tips to make more efficient use of your time.
1. Learn the Difference Between Practicing and Performing
Practicing isn’t about sounding good. If a piece sounds 'performance ready' while you’re working on it, you’re likely practicing the wrong way. When you sit down with your instrument and play a song you know, or even a portion of a song that you already have down, you aren’t really practicing; you’re performing. We all do it, and it’s definitely something you should do—you don’t want to lose the joy and passion that you have for playing music. It’s why you learned an instrument in the first place!
Don’t fool yourself into calling it practicing though. Practicing is refining existing technique, building new techniques, and creating the muscle memory necessary to perform a piece of music you don’t already know. When I was learning 'Watcher of the Skies' by Genesis for a progressive rock gig, it was really tempting to play the verses along with the recording. I felt like I was rocking out in an arena. It was exhilarating and fun, but it wasn’t practicing. Learning the first 16 measures of the song that I couldn’t play and refining the inner voicing of the organ introduction was practicing.
2. But How Do I Love It?
Like any other learned behavior, you have to train yourself. Maybe you love to play jazz, and Miles Davis is a favorite. Before you dig into 'Milestones' along with the recording and practice your soloing, force yourself to play the Dorian mode scale in 12 keys. Play the scale starting on the 2nd degree, or play the same riff transposing it up a half step each time. Practice the techniques that you will need to elevate your performance of the song. Learn the melody of the song in several keys. After doing all of these things, then reward yourself by jamming along with the recording and letting your mind take you to a jazz club in NYC.
It sounds a little Pavlovian, but it really works. If you force yourself to put actual practice before simply performing the songs you love, eventually your brain will equate practice with the joy and love of performing. You will cherish the time you have to practice and you’ll learn to utilize the time efficiently so that you can get to 'performing' more quickly!
3. The Clock Isn’t Ticking
Another cornerstone of the 'practicing philosophy' I teach my students is the concept of 'list based' practicing instead of 'time based' practicing. Parents are always eager for me to give them a 'number of minutes' that their child should be practicing. I always advise them that it is dangerous to put a number on practice time. People can absorb concepts and build technique at vastly different paces, and it might take one student an hour to learn a certain scale while another student picks it up in minutes. One sure fire way to destroy someone’s motivation to practice is to ask them to continue to work on something for a set amount of minutes after they’ve already picked up a concept.
Modern educational studies tell us that students succeed with problem based learning. Rather than telling them 'work on this thing for 60 minutes', we should be telling them 'solve this problem, and in order to solve it you will need these skills'. Giving students a 'laundry list' of techniques and skills to work on is far more beneficial than giving them the task of 'play the piano for 60 minutes a day'.
Instead of 'practice your major scales for 30 minutes a day', try 'master 3 major scales, then go on to something that interests you'. Whether it’s a student or yourself that you are trying to train, you’ll find that the practicing instrumentalist will become eager to master concepts and move on to recreational playing instead of dreading the 'hour a day' that was mandated by their strict teacher.