In order to be successful at anything, one must be able to distinguish between good efforts, great efforts, and the not-so-great efforts. This means you have to be able to critique yourself - and as a musician, this critique should happen every time you practice.
Good practice isn’t just about going down a checklist and completing assignments. It’s really a self-reflective problem solving process. So when you set practice goals like “Practice 30 minutes a day” - you can see that completely misses the point. What is supposed to be accomplished in that half-hour? What problems will be solved and what skills improved?
There’s also the fact that people often have very low expectations for their practice - leading to little to no self-critique during practice. For example, newer students will often get frustrated after a couple unsuccessful attempts at playing a passage right. However, getting something perfect after a few tries is very uncommon (and if you are getting things this quickly, your material is way too easy for you!). Practice makes perfect. (Or “practice makes better” for those of you who don’t believe there is such a thing as perfect. But you get my point.) And, as it turns out, a study shows that deliberate practice is even more important for improvement in music than it is for sports (McNamara et. al).
In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be an expert at something - but it can take much longer if you are not practicing effectively. In this article, we’ll go over how you, a student (or if you are a parent, your child), can be self-critical in a constructive way so you start to hear the difference between bad, good, and great and make the most effective practice choices from that.
Setting a Daily Improvement Target
As I said above, it’s not enough to go into practicing with a goal like “I have to practice for 2 hours today”. Instead, think: what do you want to improve this session? You want to come out of each practice session having gained something. Make a goal instead like, “My practice today doesn’t end until I can play these 2 pages from memory” or “I’m only done when I can finally play this passage correctly 10 times in a row”. Now, you’re immersed. It’s almost like playing a game - you get lost trying to beat that one level and before you know it, 2 hours have passed and it’s time for bed. You’re not focused on the clock, and you’re not focused on simply getting through a list of assignments. You’re pushing through, you’re thinking hard - you’re really learning.
Rating your Practice
Work with your teacher to learn and establish what is considered good practice, bad practice, and great practice. Everyone’s standards will be different, as everyone is learning different things at different levels. For me, I’m usually trying to get something down solid in a practice session. So, whether it’s a chord progression, a melody, or a specific passage, I center my goal around that and rate my practice on how close I got to that goal.
Often I rate my practice with these three questions:
- Was that productive?
- How many of my goals did I achieve and master?
- Have I grown as a musician and student (even if it’s just a little!) in this practice session?
Ideally, and most often, you should be answering ‘yes’ to all of these questions I can’t just mindlessly complete all the items in an assignment list and rate my practice well. I have to feel that I’ve improved in some way - that I’ve moved up a couple levels in this so-called ‘game’ of building musical talent.
Listening to yourself from the outside is the best way to critique yourself the way an audience member would. It can be hard at first, and you will experience a lot of cringing. After all, you are your own harshest critic! Use recordings to record your practices and see progress through the months. You’ll often find slight nuances in parts that aren’t exactly how you thought they sounded, or you’ll find that as a third-person listener, you would feel more if you slowed down at this certain part.
It’s great to have recordings if you’re an improviser or composer - often you’ll play something beautiful, get drawn into the idea and keep playing until you’ve forgotten the original idea (d’oh!). By recording your sessions, you can go back and pick out what you liked to keep for later.
Every time you record a ‘final cut’ of the song, you should play like you’re in a performance. Literally. Do the whole routine and get yourself into the mindset. Dim the lights (recorder already rolling), walk up to the piano (or whatever area you make your ‘stage’), bow, sit down, take a breath, visualize the audience in front of you - and then begin. Be in the mindset that this is your one and only chance to perform this song. Try to hold the length of the performance in your mind - what you want the audience to feel, where you will build, and how you will begin and end. If you mess up, try to recover as if you would in a performance - as seamlessly and unnoticeably as possible.
I actually get nervous as I picture the audience in front of me. For that moment, I’m not at home in my tiny, cramped keyboard setup. I see every face, dark in the seats of the audience, staring up at me. I feel the heat of the spotlight and how painfully aware I am of the piano bench (which is never at the right height). I think of hearing the faint rustling of programs, someone clearing their throat - but mostly, I focus on that heavy, expectant silence that fills the air before you play your first notes. And when I get myself nervous like this, I mess up in ways that I haven’t messed up before - which is good! I find my ‘hidden’ weak spots like this and keep tightening until I can be nervous and play it through exactly the way I want to. And with the recording, you’ll often find that you played things differently or forgot to follow some expressive mental notes - which you can also jot down to work on or change. See the checklist at the end of this article as a guide on what to look for when listening to your recordings.
Setting daily improvement targets, rating your practice, and listening to recordings of yourself are all activities you should be engaging in every time you practice. This will help you to have a good ear, know what sounds good to the audience, and make sure that you improve every time you practice. Once you know what you’re looking for, you know better what to work toward and how to make the best of every practice.
Use the checklist below when listening to your recordings.
This will help you develop a critical eye and be more aware of what’s happening while you play. As you master a song, your answers should eventually all be ‘0’ or ‘Y’. When you count all the areas you made mistakes, make sure you either mentally or physically note where those areas were, so you can isolate them and get them down.
- I stopped/paused _ number of times.
- I had _ uneasy, almost-missed parts.
- I missed _ notes. (Even the ones you quickly corrected! Don’t lie to yourself!)
- I forgot _ expressive notes (dynamics, tempo, etc.).
- There is feeling in this performance. (Y / N)
(Also answer the following if this was a run-through):
- I would buy this recording! (Do you feel good when you hear it? Do you want others to hear it?) (Y / N)
- I know this song through and through. If, tomorrow morning, I were suddenly placed in Carnegie Hall with a full house, I could perform it perfectly on command and deliver a standing-ovation-worthy performance. (Y / N)
Changing your practice mindset from passive to critical can be one of the best things you can do in terms of improvement. Better Practice helps you organize and share your recordings and also captures your rating for each assignment practiced so you can get the best feedback from both yourself and your teacher.