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  • Writer's pictureBrent Mead

How do I get better? Why talking about Practicing is important.

I have given several masterclasses on practicing to students. As a professional musician and someone who has had successes in auditions, practice psychology is a topic I have studied and work-shopped on my own both in the classroom and my own implementation. The first concept I have my students learn is that learning to play an instrument is more like riding a bike or throwing a fastball than memorizing a list of dates for class. This distinction is important because it changes how we approach practicing the instrument. Psychologists call this procedural learning(riding a bike) vs. declarative learning(memorizing dates).

Imagine a MLB pitcher came up to you one afternoon. He explains over several hours how to throw a baseball, describing how you will throw all the way to the catcher and how to throw different pitches. He also takes time to describe the common mistakes amateur pitchers make that prevent them from making the major leagues. After 6 hours, could you take the mound in a major league game? Why not? Now imagine you buy an entertainment center and a salesman spends time describing how you will set it up. He describes with great detail the steps required, makes sure you have them memorized, and also describes some common mistakes to prevent you from making those mistakes. Would you feel comfortable assembling the entertainment center? Likely, yes.

Throwing a baseball at a professional level requires practice, experimentation, and constant trial and error. It takes years of honing your abilities, gaining strength, understanding your body’s role in the throwing motion, and yes, you guessed it, practice. Learning a musical instrument is similar to the baseball analogy. Understanding the ‘steps’ to playing an instrument is only half of the learning process. Like throwing a baseball well, you need to throw a ball, assess what went wrong, pinpoint an issue, and then address the issue by trying again. A pitching coach may help pinpoint what to do with your fingers, but your legs and hips are also critical to throwing a powerful pitch. Isolating each part of the throwing motion, fixing any issues, and putting them all together is part of a several year process of learning. To compare this to music, a student must understand how the breath, air, posture, hand or finger position, and mental understanding is only half of the battle. One must apply all of these skills harmoniously in time and with a specific pattern of notes dictated by the composer to perform a piece of music well.

Performing music is choreographed sound - practice the music with the mindset that you need to understand all aspects of tone, pitch, rhythm, and musicianship while playing the music in a prescribed time. Time influences this understanding because we need to practice the transitions between the notes instead of just understanding what to do. Mental understanding is only half of the process - executing the above skills in time requires practicing the gaps & transitions in a way that reinforces the links between the notes. With practice that reflects a procedural mindset, you will find yourself becoming a more efficient practicer!

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