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Here is the author’s bio from his website :

Tom Heany has been involved with musician his whole life, as a student, a teacher, a player, a writer and, yes, a practicer – for 13,000 hours, give or take a few.For 18 years he was the Director of Programming for the National Music Foundation, where he developed and ran the American Music Education Initiative and the Berkshire Music Festival. As a contributing editor for the National Guitar Workshop, he wrote about musical subjects ranging from the Grammy Awards to Tuvan throat-singing. For WorkshopLive, NGW’s online learning platform, he interviewed guitar, bass and piano teachers about their views on practicing, performing and playing.

This book distills his years of  wisdom in 90 odd pages. Learning any musical instrument involves a huge amount of time “practicing” and very small amount of time “playing”. What’s the difference between the two terms ? In the former you have a mechanic type of mindset that involves tearing apart long compositions, repeating difficult notes, improving and fixing your errors, trying to build muscle memory , listening to others renditions, writing notes etc. On the other hand, “playing” involves invoking muscle memory, working memory and long term memory to give a performance in front of a public or a private audience.

In any budding artist’s life, the proportion of practice time is obviously very high. But what constitutes a good practice session ? If you play effortlessly for let’s say 15 min daily, does it mean that you have had a good practice session ?  If you are not struggling in practice, then are you really learning anything new ? How does one deal with the inevitable frustrations that arise when one starts practicing any instrument on a regular basis ? These and many more questions are answered by this book. They say that visuals are the best way to store and retrieve information and this book does exactly that. For each of the components of a good practice session, it creates little symbols that can serve as anchor points for any person who is practicing / wants to practice an instrument on a regular basis. Some of the points mentioned in the book look obvious when you read them. But to be consciously aware of them before, during and after a practice session is the key.

Here are 7 key ideas from the book that are to be kept in mind before/during/after a practice session :

1_love

If you are not enjoying the practice,change it until you are

The author takes an example of a kid who takes a piano lesson unwillingly and leaps off the class in to a basketball session for practice. How is basketball practice different from practicing an instrument ? Using this analogy, he gives a few tips for people who think that practicing an instrument is tedious and boring.

2_move Practice movement – music will follow

Music is not what we do; music is the result of what we do. We play music, but we practice movement. We make music by moving our bodies – hands, fingers, arms, back, shoulders, legs, feet, breath – against an instrument. It is essential that we focus on every aspect of moment while we practice. Most of the times we become bored and mostly these are instances we’re focusing on music, when we should be focusing on movement. Make that one change, and everything else changes, too.

Focus on movement, and our frame of mind becomes analytical. We start thinking less like artists and more like mechanics and, when it comes to practicing, that’s a major step in the right direction.This makes our mind analytical.

Focus on movement, and immediately we’re relying on our eyes much more than our ears. Visual input is much more precise than auditory input for most of us. We can describe, analyze and understand what we see more easily than what we hear.

Focus on movement, and we’re dealing with something over which we have direct control. We can make a change and see the effect right away.

Focus on movement, and the enjoyment and satisfaction come from getting the moves right, not from hearing the music – from how it feels, not from how it sounds. Once the move feels right, we want to do it over and over to enjoy that feeling, not to wander off after the melody.

3_practice_play

Playing and Practicing are two different things

Practicing and Playing are as different as cooking and eating. In some ways they almost completely unrelated. Playing music is an artistic, emotional activity. Ideally, you’d like to get your conscious mind out of the way as much as possible when you’re playing – the less thinking and the more ‘flow’, the better. Practicing is an analytical activity. It requires a completely different mental attitude. When you practice, you break things down into parts and study them. You look at everything – the music you’re trying to learn, the movements of your fingers, the results you achieve, etc. – and try to understand how all the pieces work together. You have to think like a mechanic. Develop a mechanic mindset!

4_move_music

You know it when your hands know it

The main reason most of us practice is so that we can play music better. Nobody practices so that they can talk about music better, or think about it better. Practicing is primarily about playing, and that means practicing is also about the body. What about the mind? The mind is important, obviously, and practicing trains the mind as well. But to get the most out of your practicing, you need to put your brain in the back seat and let your hands drive.

The mind and the body learn in different ways. The mind learns by recognizing patterns that connect new information with things it has already learned.The body, on the other hand, learns by repetition. For your muscles to learn a motion they have to do it over and over again. There’s no capturing patterns and filling in the details later. The hands, especially, need the details now, and if you don’t pay attention to those details, your hands will learn the wrong ones and it will be very hard to unlearn them.

All that repetition takes time. There aren’t any shortcuts. You can’t hurry it – in fact, hurrying usually makes you move backwards instead of forwards. And you can’t decide in advance how long it should take; it’s going to take however long your fingers need it to take. That’s just how bodies work. What does this mean for us? It means that whenever we practice something, our heads learn it before our hands do.

The more we focus on making sure our hands know and understand what to do – in other words, the more we concentrate on how our hands have to move – the faster we’ll progress.

  • Pay attention to which fingers you use.
  • Pay attention your fingertips.
  • Pay attention to the whole Frank Wilson hand. What are your wrists doing? What are your forearms doing ? Where are your elbows ?
  • Pay attention to physical sensation.
  • Analyze the sound you make as you play to

5_focus

 You affect everything by concentrating on one thing.

The more specific you can be about the thing you’re practicing, the better your practicing will be. If you concentrate on making one thing better, other things will start to get better, too. Why? Because motion connects everything.

6_hard

Don’t worry about the hard parts.

People learning a new song or a new technique often get nervous or anxious when they reach “the hard part.” 90% of the time the hard part is hard for one (or both) of two reasons: 1) They’re playing it too fast, 2) They don’t understand what they’re doing yet.

Here’s how you can get rid of 90% of the so-called hard parts: 1) Slow down. 2) Cut them into smaller, easier-to-understand pieces and work on those first. Take the hard parts and slice them up and slow them down until you have parts that are manageable – parts that you can practice without struggling. They can be as small as two notes. Then, when you know them well, put them back together.

Practicing music that’s too hard is frustrating and discouraging, and it makes your body tense up. And if you practice frustration, discouragement and tension, you’ll start getting better and better at being frustrated, discouraged and tense. You’ll end up practicing poor performance – practicing your mistakes until you can make them reliably every time. Better to get a bunch of small pieces perfect first, and then put them all together. So, if you find yourself struggling, take that as a sign that you need to change your approach.

7_star

Get your hands and your ears used to “Perfect.”

“Perfect” doesn’t mean playing a 5 minute piece perfectly. It means playing a note as perfectly as you can. It means moving your hands from one note to the next as perfectly as you can. It means aiming for perfect tone and perfect timing. It means aiming for perfection note-by-note, instant-by-instant. Forget about playing a whole song perfectly. Put your effort and intention into practicing perfect hand motions, and perfect performances will follow.

Notice that the idea doesn’t say Play perfectly. That’s a big idea – a little scary, a little vague – that sounds impossible. The idea instead says, Get your hands and your ears used to “Perfect”. Raise your standards. Get your hands used to moving perfectly, and they won’t be satisfied with anything less. Get your ears used to hearing perfect notes and phrases, and anything less than perfect will sound like a mistake. Make perfection at the lowest level a habit. Reach the point where “Good enough” doesn’t sound or feel right, where “Good enough” isn’t good enough. If you aim for “perfect” every time you practice, your practicing and your playing will both improve.

 

Here are the 7 habits mentioned in the book that helps you practice better:

tools_1_comfortable

Be Comfortable :

It’s important to be comfortable while you practice. If you’re comfortable, you’ll practice longer. If you’re comfortable, your body will be relaxed, your breathing will be more natural, and your hands, arms, shoulders, etc. will be freer to move.

tools_2_balance

Be Honest :

When you practice, every sound is your doing – after all, you’re the only one there. Wrong notes, weak notes, bad tone, grunts, sighs – whether you mean them or not, they’re all yours. You have to control them, and to do that you have to know – and admit – that you’re making them.

tools_3_optimistic

Be Optimistic :

There are things you can do, and things you can’t do yet. Remember that people all over the world, for hundreds of years, have been learning to play musical instruments. They’ve all gone through the same frustration, and they’ve all learned to do what you’re learning to do. So don’t worry. You’ll get there. In an hour of practice you’ll make literally thousands of small motions and small decisions. They’ll add up to an inch of progress on a good day. The process is slow; it requires patience. But it’s real.

tools_4_persistent

 Be Persistent :

When you’re practicing, and you’re dealing with something that seems hard to do, the easiest thing in the world is to give up. That’s what most people do. Either they stop practicing completely, or they stop working on the things they can’t do yet and just play the things they already know. Sometimes they just go through the motions, stumbling through a piece or an exercise over and over without concentrating on it. That’s not practicing – that’s fooling around. And it’s not even good fooling around, because it’s a lousy way to spend your time. If you’re not enjoying it, change it until you do.

People who lift weights know that the real progress happens when they keep going after their bodies and minds tell them to stop. When you practice, you have to do the same. You have to be persistent.

Persistence is partly just making a plan for your practice session and sticking with it. But it’s more than just that. If you decide you’re going to practice for 15 minutes, you don’t stop at 11 minutes. You complete the tasks you set for yourself. But if you’re bored at 11 minutes, don’t stop, and don’t just soldier on, either – first, get un-bored. Find a way to make it interesting. If it’s too hard, don’t stop, don’t soldier on – find a way to make it simpler, and continue practicing. That’s persistence in a nut shell – Find a way, and continue.

tools_5_scheck

 Be Consistent :

Practice works best when you do it every day. Some people would say that’s pretty much the only way it works. Being consistent means practicing the right way, every day. Being consistent means being persistent every day.

Many of the things you’re trying to learn are small movements that are hard to describe in words. (“It sounds better when my fingers go like this instead of like that.”) In order to be able to repeat these movements, you have to be able to remember how your hands feel or look when you make them. You can’t really write them down, and that makes them hard to remember. If you let a few days elapse between practice sessions, you’ll forget them, and you’ll have to find them all over again. It will be as though your last practice session never happened. Being consistent means you have a plan, you stick to it, and you do it every day. Practicing every day is much more important than practicing for a particular amount of time. 20 minutes a day works better than 60 minutes every three days. Consistency makes all the difference. It’s the best way to get there.

Consistency works for another reason. You can’t be consistent without commitment. You can’t make a practice plan, and a schedule, and stick to it for any length of time, without making some kind of promise to yourself. Being consistent means you have jumped in with both feet. It means you have told yourself, “I want to be a musician, and if this is what it takes then I’m going to do it. No excuses, no distractions.” That’s a powerful promise.

tools_6_slow

Go Slow :

Practicing slowly makes it easier for you to focus on the mechanics – that is, on what your hands, arms, shoulders, breath, etc. are doing.

Practicing slowly makes it easier for you to focus on the mechanics – that is, on what your hands, arms, shoulders, breath, etc. are doing. This is because the slower you go, the less what you’re working on sounds like music. The less it sounds like music, the easier it is to ignore. And if you’re going to concentrate on the motion, you have to ignore the music.

Practicing slowly encourages relaxation in your hands and arms. Practicing fast does the opposite.

Practicing slowly makes mistakes impossible to overlook. 

tools_7_music

 Make Music :

Make Music means to build a musical intention, a musical attitude, a musical effect, into every note, every rest, every finger movement, every breath. When you hit that target, you’ll be unable to play any other way. You want musicality to be something automatic, requiring no thought. The only way to get there is note by note, every time.

 

image Takeaway :

The book contains some valuable ideas that one can keep in mind while practicing any instrument. I loved the idea of Music Journal for every practice session. By merely recording some specific aspects of every session, one can be aware of a ton of things as you go along. There’s also an iPad app (Music Journal) for the same.

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