Most of us practice music because we want to play music.
There might be a couple of other reasons you could suggest – a love of learning, a desire to improve, a healthy discipline, a love of music – but underneath it all, the ultimate goal is playing music, playing it well and enjoying playing it.
Too often, however, I find that musicians don’t design their practice to lead them to that goal. They don’t use the practice techniques that will move them quickly and predictably from learning the notes to a polished performance.
One word before I continue - Don’t be led by the word “performance” to think that the tips that follow are pertinent only if you are playing in public. Even just playing the piece “for your own enjoyment” counts as a performance, at least in this context. Would you really be satisfied playing a piece with many stops, starts and mistakes, even if you were the only one listening?
Now, let me explain about practice techniques.
Imagine you would like to build a table. If you’ve never made one before, you might decide to start with some wood, a saw, a hammer and some nails. And with some experimentation, creativity and perhaps some colorful language, you might come up with a workable table.
But if you asked an experienced carpenter to craft a table, he would go first to his toolbox where he had not just any saw, but the right kind of saw for the wood he was using. He might choose screws instead of nails, and he would certainly use a level to make sure the table was straight and steady. And he would make the job look easy.
Having the right tools and knowing how to use them distinguishes the craftsman from the weekend do-it-yourself-er.
Music practice is its own craft. In order to produce beautiful musical results, you need a well-stocked “practice toolbox” with strategies and techniques to turn the notes onto the page into a moment of musical magic.
Practice techniques are ways to solve specific problems that arise as you take a piece toward the finish line. For instance, they may be designed to eliminate errors, increase speed, secure fingering or reinforce memorization.
Hands separate practice is one example. Practicing a passage hands separately gives you clarity on what each hand is playing and allows you to address complications of fingering or tricky notes one hand at a time. It is a very effective tool and belongs in every harpist’s toolbox.
Practice techniques also help you accomplish more in your practice. You will find that having a defined approach to resolving a difficulty prevents you from wasting time with the “lather-rinse-repeat” method. Just “doing it over until it’s right” is much less effective than focusing on the issue and fixing it.
Of course, it takes time to stock your toolbox completely, but you should be making a conscious effort to add more tools over time. Meanwhile, I’d like to help you fill your toolbox with three simple tools:
Play it backwards. Working a difficult passage backwards, beat by beat or measure by measure, helps you learn to play through the passage instead of getting stuck right at the beginning of it.
Reverse the dynamics. Practicing using dynamics exactly opposite to those printed in the music will help you to focus on the “real” dynamics with a heightened awareness of their effect in the music. It also helps develop your technical control.
Play it in rhythms. This is my go-to tool for any passage with lots of scales or arpeggios. It helps me to play them more evenly and accurately, as well as being a great technical workout! (I explain this tool more thoroughly in an earlier post).