I love teaching, to help people develop their musical skills. As a bonus, instructing my piano students have helped me to advance my own playing, and my approach to music. In the process of teaching other people to overcome their obstacles, I’ve grown more self-conscious about my playing, as well as my practice routines. It would be nearly impossible for me to tell my students the same things over and over without really thinking about or implementing these things in my own playing.
When it comes to overcoming challenges, there seem to be some obstacles that many of my students struggle with at one point or another. You may have come across some, or all, of the topics mentioned below. For most people, these has to be taught, and overseen by an instructor, in order to be avoided. At least at first. It’s hard to figure out everything on your own (especially for the younger students), and don’t we all struggle with these things in our practice from time to time?
Practicing the same (wrong) way over and over
Whatever parts of our body that produces our musical sound will learn to do so through repetition. But if you keep practicing in a certain way and it doesn’t work – don’t keep doing it! Try to find a different way, or you might imprint bad habits or patterns into your muscle memory. I admit you often have to get things wrong before you can get them right. Still, don’t get stuck doing something over and over without knowing that it will actually help you improve your musical skill.
Always playing a song start to finish
Many of my novice students start at the beginning, not yet flexible enough to start in the middle, or at the end, of a musical piece. I try to encourage them and show them how to start with any part of the material. Why? Because they may not have the ability to process the whole material very well in just one take. Nearly all of my students is familiar with this situation: They know the beginning of the piece well, the middle section a little less and the end section barely at all. To counter this, work backwards from time to time. Start practicing the end section, then the middle section and at last the beginning section.
Taking too large chunks at a time
This issue is very similar to the one above, and much for the same reasons. Many of my students feel overwhelmed by the complexity of a musical piece, thinking they must process everything at the same time! Learn to divide the composition into smaller sections. Find some good entry points and take one part at a time. Rest before you practice the next section. And whenever you feel that your mind is starting to feel foggy, use that as a sign to take a break – or to practice an even smaller section – so that you can keep your focus better in the long run.
Playing too fast
Playing fast can be fun and intense. But practicing slow at first is usually the best way to get to speed. Playing fast without really doing it well often ruins your technique, as you develop a lot of bad habits that you will need to sort out in a slower tempo. Most of us learn by doing, therefore, if you play fast and sloppy, your technique will be fast and sloppy. That is, until you work things out in a slower tempo, where you have time to correct your mistakes.
Not really getting to know the material
Everything you learn will be continuously processed by your brain after practicing. If you are unclear on what you’re doing, your brain will not be able to appreciate the material. As an example, if I fail to make my students grasp what is really going on in a piece we are playing, they are less likely to make any (permanent) progress. By really understanding the music you’re playing you will absorb it better! Look for patterns, break it down. Make sure you “get” it as well as you can on every level – musically, technically and intellectually.
Not sticking to decided practice routines
Suppose you know a better way to learn something, but keep practicing in the same, old manner? As we are prone to habits, it is sometimes hard to change the way we do things. It takes energy, focus, and may challenge the way we see ourselves. I think this is one of the reasons why we keep – for example – playing too fast. We know that it’s better to play slow and precise, but find it hard to stick to the routines we’ve decided on. Remind yourself that if you invest energy in good practice routines right now, it can help you save energy later.
Not practicing often enough
Have you ever forgotten to practice in between lessons, and realized the day before, that “oops, I have a lesson tomorrow, better catch up and practice a lot today”? I think most of us have, and it’s okay, just not very beneficial for our musical development. In terms of practice – think baby steps! Practice short and often! Short sessions are less tiresome, and you are less likely to learn errors as a result of lacking focus. Most of us lead busy lives, but try to include practicing your instrument into your everyday routine. If possible, also choose to practice when you have lots of energy.
Having too many distractions
It takes time to build up a good focus. And really just one beep from your phone to ruin it. Put your phone and computer away for some time and focus only on your practicing. If it helps you with structure, set an alarm clock so that you know when you are allowed to get back to earth. As one of my teachers used to say: “Just put all of your things outside the room for a while. They still wait for you when you get back”. Allow yourself to be really single focus-minded about your practice and you’ll be amazed about how much clarity and quality it will add to it.
Not sticking with the material long enough
Many of us are not as used to waiting as we were ten years ago, with everything being so accessible these days. And I think this makes us more impatient when it comes to results. Learning to play a musical instrument is a long and slow process. It might take years to learn to do something well. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that this is just the way it is, and that a slow progress doesn’t necessarily mean that we are useless or untalented. Many of the experts, people that are successful in what they do, have spent every day for many years, practicing over and over. They didn’t just wake up one day as pros!
Do some of the practice habits above sound familiar? I’ve certainly tried all of them. Hopefully, the more we train ourselves to see when we do things the “wrong” way, the better we’ll be at correcting them, making our practice experience more pleasant and effective.
Did you like what you just read? Are you looking for further answers to your challenges? Don’t hesitate to comment on these topics, or any other, below.