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On Practicing

There are so many things to say about practicing and it’s difficult to cover all of the aspects of practicing in one single article. But if I were to reduce it to one question it would be, “Why?” I think the answer would be, “We practice for performance.” I find that some of the best reasons to practice are for a specific engagement, audition, or maybe a recording session. That’s because you have to accomplish a specific task in the near future. The second kind of practice is more long term to keep improving on your instrument because you love playing it and you want to learn the literature and master it. Sometimes the two meet and practicing satisfies both reasons to prepare you for a single event. This will happen at different levels throughout your life. The best thing about practicing is if you do it correctly, you can be in the moment and really enjoy playing. Some musicians I know refer to practicing as a form of meditation.

When we play music or practice there are three levels of thinking going on at the same time. And the purpose of practicing is to process musical information into the following three categories of thinking or paying attention: automatic, veiled, and controlled. An automatic thinking process is when you are not aware of thinking or paying attention to what you are doing, but you are doing it. These are things like riding a bike, driving a car, skate boarding, and playing scales and arpeggios. Did you catch the last one? A veiled thinking process is doing two things at the same time where one requires a little more attention and requires more control. I think of it as riding a bike with someone and having a conversation at the same time. Or doing something when someone is talking to you and you keep saying, “What?,” even though you are pretty sure you heard them but you really want to make sure. (Maybe the last one only happens to me.) The musical version would be playing in a band or a quartet and you are playing in unison with one instrument while reading your part. A controlled thinking process is doing something that requires all of your attention and where you focus your attention to control a specific task. This is stopping for a red light, crossing the street, or looking at a conductor or a fellow band mate for an entrance.

As you can imagine, we need to incorporate all of these three levels of thinking into our practice because we are performing a number of different tasks at the same time. All of these tasks cannot have our full attention. Ask yourself, what requires your immediate attention when you are playing a piece of music? Is it the fingerings, the rhythm, and the form? The item that needs your full attention is the controlled process, the secondary task is veiled, and the one you are not even thinking about is the automatic process. You want to get to the point where you are paying attention to what is going on around you and interacting with the musicians in the band. You are not worried about fingerings or the rhythm but you can make music and enjoy it. This is when you know your practicing has paid off.

How we process music when we practice is through three different memory systems: hearing it (aural), seeing it (visual), and feeling it (tactile). It’s important to include all of these memory systems when you practice. This will help you from forgetting things because if one system fails, you can rely upon the others. Then you will have three chances for getting it right! Have you ever been playing where you forget what comes next in a piece and then you can either hear it or reach for it? Depending upon how you practice and your training, one memory system will be stronger than the other. For example, classically trained musicians have a very strong visual memory because they were trained from the beginning reading music. Other styles come to music through picking at an instrument or singing in the church choir. If you practice scales frequently without reading them you are building a strong tactile memory. Taking another approach to really listen while you’re playing is working on your aural system. Whatever your strength may be, you need to develop all of your memory systems and thinking processes on your instrument. I know of great musicians who practice scales while watching television. Or some talk about playing a piece of music while preparing a shopping list. These are clues as to what kind of processing these musicians have accomplished through practicing.

It would be good just to talk a little about two different kinds of practice. When I listen to different musicians practice there are two opposite ends of the spectrum. There is a level of practicing which is simply playing things you like, and mostly all of these pieces are things you can play. This becomes a get better and faster at all of the things you can do kind of practicing. I would call this maintenance practice. This is where you are really enjoying playing your instrument and making sure that you are keeping up your technique. Then there is a practice of playing music and technical exercises that you cannot perform which is self-improvement practice. This kind of practice usually involves playing in awkward keys or tempos that are too fast or too slow or simply things you can’t do. This kind of practice is very tiring and can create a good amount of tension. Actually, too much of this kind of practice could create physical problems with your playing. Make sure that you blend these different kinds of practice into each session.

Each practice session should contain both kinds of practicing and employ an elaborative rehearsal method. This technique of rehearsal involves making associations to other information you already know. By elaborating or creating a network of knowledge you can create a deeper or richer understand of the music on different levels. Most of us get locked into a rote rehearsal method at an early age. This technique is simply repeating the material over and over again to try to remember it. A common example used to illustrate this concept is repeating a phone number over and over again while running to the phone. It may last in your memory for a little while but it is soon forgotten. Sometimes this technique is confused with learning something by ear. If you learn something by ear and analyze it as a scale or arpeggio, then this is an elaborative rehearsal technique. If you just repeat it over and over again without trying to make a different connection each time, then you are learning by rote. Have you ever been playing a piece and you forget the music? It has happened to me on a number of occasions. If you need to go all the way back to the beginning of the piece to start again, you are not practicing properly and may be employing more of a rote rehearsal method. If you can start again by thinking of taking it from the theme, the last dominant chord, or the string entrance; then you are working more from an elaborative method where you are making different connections.

Let’s see if we can put this all together. You have heard of musicians practicing four- to six-hours a day. This is possible if you take breaks in between and employ different kinds of practice. But I would like to set up a weekly practice schedule for you based upon an hour, and you can modify this schedule to suit your specific needs. No matter what style of music you play, you should practice your technique, sound, and repertoire. And don’t forget to include a 10-minute warm up. I’m a flute player so I’ll leave you with a routine that works for me. Also, you can modify the routine to suit your own practice needs. I like to practice in six-day cycles where I give myself a day off. This provides me with an incubation period where I can reflect on the music I am playing and look at things differently. On this “day off” I usually end up practicing without my instrument, which is another kind of elaborative rehearsal technique. The following routine emphasizes an elaborative rehearsal method putting all of the memory systems to use.

Day 10 minutes
15 minutes
5 minutes
30 minutes

1

Warm up (focus on rhythm and sound)
Scale study (maybe major scales) Analyze your piece without your instrument When introducing a new piece see how much you can sight read
2 Warm up (focus on scale and sound)
Chord study (maybe major triads)
Analyze a new section silently fingering your instrument
Work on connections between scale and chord materials in the piece
3 Warm up (focus on chords and sound)
New scale study (minor scales)
Analyze another section
Look for the repetitive sections and determine the form
4 Warm up Day 1
New chord study (minor triads)
Practice the piece without instrument
See how much you can play by ear
5 Warm up Day 2
Another new scale study (in 3rds)
Practice difficult passages without instrument
Work on special sections that need attention with instrument
6 Warm up Day 3
Scale and chord study review of major and minor
Sing the piece without the instrument
See how much of the piece you can play by memory (visualize)

This practice routine is based upon self-improvement and does not include maintenance practice or what I consider just playing. As you can see this hour of practice is quite rigorous and you should blend both types of practice each day. It is important to blend your practice time so you can enjoy it. Yes, that’s correct. You should enjoy practicing. Practicing is a solitary event and should be blended with making music with others. Music is a social art and if you are spending numerous hours in the practice room without playing with others, something is wrong. Practice is for performance, play and be well.

Matt Marvuglio is Dean of the Performance Division at Berklee College of Music. As a virtuosic flutist and composer, he has traveled throughout the United States, Europe, and Japan, premiering his compositions for jazz flute. He has presented clinics for the National Flute Association, the Acoustic Society of America, and the International Flute Convention in Sao Paulo, Brazil. He teaches basic improvisation and ear training in Berklee’s online extension school, Berkleemusic. Visit Matt’s Web site.


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Published: 10/24/2006

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