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Practicing vs. Playing: What's the Difference?

Think back to your very first musical encounter. What made you pick up your first instrument? Whatever the answer (whether it was inspiration from seeing a performance, a school requirement, or a demanding mother) - I think we all had that flash of hope in us that someday (soon), we’d be playing our hearts out on that instrument. Instead, we were greeted with years and years (endless!) of grueling practice, weekly lessons, weekly reprimands, and a lot of thinking, “Why do I have to learn this?”

And eventually, this disconnect between expectation and reality leads kids to hate lessons, practice, and the instrument itself.

Playing vs. Practicing

People practice hard with the goal of being able to play freely and musically. Practicing an instrument and playing an instrument are two totally different things.

See, practice time is for locking down, putting on your serious face and doing a lot of often tedious things that require mental strain. It’s like jogging - it should work you out (more mentally than physically in this case), but when you reach the finish line, you feel relieved! Like, “Yes, I finally got this part/technique/piece down!” When I really focus and practice, you’ll see my shell stumble out of the room 4 hours later, in a daze, just mentally exhausted and really, really hungry. This is work that’s necessary to become a better musician.

Playing on the other hand doesn't make you push so hard mentally, so isn't usually a good source of growth. However, it is an equally important but oft-forgotten part of learning an instrument. So many people get lost in their drive for perfection. You don’t want to lose sight of the real meaning of music: a means for expression, togetherness, and celebration. You want to keep close the reason why you wanted to learn this instrument in the first place! Sometimes, you just have to set aside some time to really get lost in the music, play what you love to play, and make your own ideas!

1. Find a good balance

Very important: find a good balance of incorporating both playing and practicing into your schedule. Playing or rehearsing with a group can make for a good session which strongly incorporates both!

Too much practice (or only practice, as many students are doing) can cause you to lose sight of the joy of music and can make lessons something to dread.

Too much playing means you’re avoiding working on the tough things, or only playing what you already know. You can’t expect to improve if you’re only putting in time to play for fun. This may be why some people ‘practice’ for hours and don’t improve much, while others practice only for 30 minutes and improve like crazy!

2. Create a routine

It can be hard to get into the mindset of either playing or practicing right on the spot. That’s why I created a little routine so my mind is always prepared for what I’m about to do, and can switch mentalities as I go. For example, I always start off my practice with just playing. It lets my mind relax, fingers lightly warm up, and it’s fun! When I feel like I’m refreshed and warmed up, I say, “Okay. Now, back to business,” and lock down to do intensive, focused practice. Usually after practicing, I’m too tired to be able to play as much as I’d like, so I put that up front and it works perfectly for me. It may be different for you; maybe for some, it works best when they play in between practice as mental ‘breaks’. So just make sure to find what vibes with you best!

It’s important to make the distinction between playing and practicing - and once students are aware of it and know the importance of each, they can learn to find their own balance and routine that works for them. Maybe their routine is to not have a routine; maybe like me, they have specific time set aside everyday to do both. Everyone’s different. The important thing is, students don’t fall into the trap of just practicing day by day. Teach them the difference and how to make time for both. The joy of music should be first and foremost. If they keep the fun in their playing, they will be more driven to practice as their inspiration levels stay up.

All we want at Better Practice is for students to discover the joy of music in practice. We help them get through both the tough times and the fun times seamlessly by making practice smart, fun, and easy.