I called home yesterday morning after I had finished my practice for the day. After some chatting, my mom’s reactions reminded me just how bizarre a serious practice routine can seem to the uninitiated. Given that most of my close friends are about as absorbed in music as I am, I don’t often have a reason to question my obsession with practice; in circles of musicians, this lifestyle is not remarkable. Even so, I’m still on the eyebrow-raising end of the spectrum. I’d like to take this opportunity to philosophize: how does one develop such an insane devotion to such strictly regimented tasks, and what goes into that, exactly?
At my first childhood piano lesson, my teacher sat me down with my parents, and made one thing very clear: from that point forward, I would be expected to practice every piece of music that I was working on three times, correctly, every day. The time investment could be as little or as much as this objective required, usually depending upon the assessment of a supervising parent. This rule is an oversimplification of what is required to regularly improve one’s proficiency at an instrument, however it is both effective and easy for a child to understand, and it builds successful work habits which will follow a young person throughout their life.
As I got older, and as the musical repertoire that I was working on became increasingly difficult, meeting this requirement naturally required longer and longer hours of practice. Being a typical preteen, I began to question my parents’ authority to enforce such an unreasonable demand on my time. My mother still loves to recount the time that I called the Children’s Help Line to report that, “My parents make me practice piano (*sniffle*) for half an hour every day!” That particular account is especially amusing now that I’m clocking eighteen times that, entirely of my own volition.
Everything really changes when you hit music school, though, because in some sense, the craziest inmates are running the asylum. Those individuals who end up making a career in music are the ones who get positively enviable results from their practice. Those are the people who running the show, ever encouraging students to find their own methods: At some point, your continued development depends on making progress even after you’ve exhausted the easy ride on the relatively steep beginning of the learning curve. You have to figure out how to trick your body into reliably doing things that should be physically impossible and then make them sound effortless. It is in this pursuit that the successful student explores various ways of accomplishing the impossible based their personal learning needs. Music school conversations abound with tales of desperate attempts to cram in as many hours as possible, evading building security personnel to prolong late-night jam sessions, and early risers who wake up at a normal person’s bedtime to practice before classes begin. Some of these experiments are successful, others leave something to be desired and fall to the wayside. At the end of it all, we realize that everybody is a little different, and that some suspiciously crazy practice habits can be surprisingly effective.
After spending countless hours searching for ways to speed up this process, I started to discover that the practice habits of most of my favourite musicians are very well documented. Biographies of Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones, Bill Evans and Miles Davis report that they practiced 8-12 hour days for substantial periods in their developmental years. Examples of this kind of dedication are even easier to come by on the classical side of the fence. A couple of years ago, I stumbled across a fascinating eBook called Piano Mastery (which is free on the iBooks store), consisting of a series of interviews with highly regarded masters of the instrument in the early 1900s. These accounts discuss personal practice routines, as well as their opinions on how students should approach their own practicing. Of particular interest to me was the divergence between the points of view. Although I began reading this in search of answers, I finished it with more new questions than I had started with. Almost every piece of advice offered within this text is contradicted by another at least somewhere in the book.
So what does this all mean? – It’s complicated. The more that you learn, the less you know. I concluded my previous “Music Lifestyle” article with a list of practice tips that have served me well over the years, and this got me thinking about all of the far-fetched experiments that have had an influence on my current day-to-day routine.
At one point, I did a lot of reading about sleep and memory. Apparently, a good snooze doesn’t just contribute to your feeling of alertness. With regard to committing information to long-term “procedural” memory, REM sleep is the most important part of our sleep cycle. Although scientists have yet to unravel the exact nature of the neurological processes that occur, there is a substantial body of empirical evidence suggesting that our brains transfer data from short-term to long-term memory during this stage of sleep. If your practicing is getting in the way of your beauty sleep, those extra hours probably aren’t worth it.
Reading further, I found out that many different alternative sleep patterns are well documented. Proponents have proposed of all kinds of ridiculous schemes to enhance attention span, and maximize alertness. I didn’t ever experience any particularly compelling results when experimenting with unconventional sleep schedules for the benefit of my practice. On the other hand, I did find it extremely difficult to fully commit to (and objectively test) these regimens, because they often made it extremely difficult to be even a marginally functional member of society…
Having spent part of my young adulthood pursuing competitive sports (rugby), I spent a good deal of effort reading up on strength-training and bodybuilding. Because of careful management of training sessions and nutrition, I was extraordinarily successful at putting on muscle mass very quickly. One of the most interesting phenomena that I discovered at this time was the distinction between slow-twitch and fast-twitch muscle fibre. Our muscles contain a combination of each type, but the proportion is determined by genetics and, more importantly, training. Slow-twitch muscle fibre is responsible for heavy lifting and tasks that require continued force. Most of the things we do on a daily basis, like standing upright, carrying home groceries, or even chewing, are facilitated by slow-twitch muscle fibre. Fast-twitch, on the other hand, is really cool. It is the main contributor to the explosiveness of a sprinter’s stride, to the dissipation of energy when you catch a ball, and get this, it also facilitates those impossibly fast passages that virtuoso musicians can perform, seemingly without any effort at all.
Naturally, anything this desirable is hard to come by. The most familiar exercise for fast-twitch muscle is the ballistic exercises done by sprinters. Next time you drive by the local track club, keep your eyes open for a group of people jumping on and off of a picnic table. These exercises specifically stimulate the growth of fast-twitch fibre, but quick legs aren’t of much use to a musician (unless you’re an organist, or god forbid, a drummer…). Unfortunately there is no easy way to isolate the muscle groups used in instrumental performance, and this is especially true of exercises which stimulate the growth of fast-twitch muscle fibre. In my experience, practicing fast arpeggios and scales or quick sequences of chords seems to improve finger speed, but I haven’t yet come across any literature dealing specifically with fast-twitch muscle as it pertains to instrumental performance. These gains may be the result of improved technique, but I still make a point of eating obscene amounts of protein after particularly vigorous practice sessions.
To add yet another dimension to this mystery, there are many musicians who advocate the use of mental practice. The most enthusiastic proponent of mental practice that I’ve encountered is Lorne Lofsky. He maintains that some of his most effective practice is done without an instrument at all. By constantly exercising the analytical processes that underlie his playing while visualizing their execution on the guitar, he claims to experience complete freedom of expression when he is actually performing; the instrument responds as readily as you would expect of your voice in a casual conversation. He is not alone in this belief. In a class many years ago, I remember hearing an anecdotal account of a study performed on a group of music students. The entire class was given a piece of music to learn for the following week. The control group was asked to practice normally to prepare the piece, while a test group was told only to visualize how they would perform it while reading through the music. The outcome of this experiment was apparently that the two groups had learned the piece equally well. It may simply be a matter of honing our thoughts.
Another mental process that is critical to becoming fluent in music is ear-training. The Suzuki Method, in particular, is geared to develop this skill in very young students. The method begins with a focus on ear-training, and is well suited to children whose physical stature is still too small to actually play an instrument. Specially developed group activities and games are used to indoctrinate these kids with musicianism, even to the extent of crafting mockups of musical instruments for the children to play with in ways that develop good technique. When these pupils graduate to the use of real instruments, they are then taught to learn music entirely by ear. Learning by imitating recorded performances theoretically develops superior critical-listening skills, and ideally, they will intuitively absorb the nuances of a mature performance in their own playing. From the perspective of a jazz performer, this kind of skill is doubly useful, permitting a loose on-the-fly analysis of what other improvisers in the ensemble are doing at any given moment. Sometimes recognizing the structural basis for an improvised idea can lead to very interesting and rewarding interactions.
While I’m on the topic of listening, this week I finished memorizing a very difficult piece of music that took several months of practice to learn. Because it’s difficult to determine how a piece actually sounds while you’re focusing on playing it, I decided to record the whole thing (listen to it at soundcloud.com). With several laborious takes, I managed to get through each section satisfactorily, and I put the sheet music aside for a few days of occasional listening. Three days later, I sat down to play this piece for the first time since I made the recording, and I immediately outperformed the recorded version, putting much less thought into it than any previous attempt. By internalizing the aural effect of the music, and appreciating the larger relationships among the individual phrases, the difficult technical passages felt natural to execute; my thoughts were now focused on how I was articulating the larger musical idea, rather than how to coordinate my fingers to play each note in time. This outcome is not surprising under the circumstances, but it never ceases to amaze me how powerfully our brains latch on to musical ideas.
On occasion one encounters the paradoxical truth of “no practice is the best practice.” I am always completely baffled by this when it occurs, because it raises doubts about everything I’ve come to believe about practice. Every so often, I’ll take a break from practicing. This is not to say that I stop playing entirely, but sometimes it’s nice to give yourself a break from the endless daily goals and investing countless hours to practice something thoroughly. When I eventually do get back on the horse, I’m often surprised to find myself quickly mastering a skill/technique that I had previously spent weeks, or even months, struggling with.
So what’s the point? Honestly, I don’t know. Getting better at playing music is pursuit that takes a lifetime. Every dedicated musician learns to string together an enormous number of complex coordinative tasks. Great musicians are set apart from the crowd by virtue of their good taste, reliability of execution, and the control that they exercise over every nuance of their performances. We all put in our hours, but there is so much to consider, and as I dig deeper and deeper, I seem to encounter increasingly conflicting points of view. Every aspiring performer must go through the process of rooting out the methods that work for them, and these often require sacrifices and unusual adjustments to one’s lifestyle. Ultimately, the process of discovering the strengths and limitations of the body and mind can be both amazing and humbling, but those who persist are duly rewarded. The one philosophy that has never failed me is to practice every piece of music that I am working on three times, correctly, every day. That said, I’ve got some work to do. ;-)