Tips and Tools
Top 10 Practice Tips
Top Ten Ways To Become a Better Musician
Everybody who’s anybody has a top ten list these days. Not to be left out, here’s mine — it’s pretty much like David Letterman’s lists, except mine isn’t funny.
Okay, this is an easy one. The real question is how much. I have students ask me this all the time and I usually tell them at least a 1/2 hour every day. The key here is at least. The truth is, if you want to become a really good musician, just 30 minutes will probably not suffice. I’m from the camp that believes the more practice the better, especially if done wisely. Mark O’Connor and Bela Fleck, as kids, each practiced 8 or more hours a day for several years.
2. Practice wisely.
This one is a bit harder. By wisely, I mean that you understand exactly what your weaknesses are and how to deal with them. As a full-time teacher for over twenty years, I would say that most people are not very good at understanding exactly what they’re having trouble with. I’ve seen students countless times tell me they’re struggling with the right hand bowing or picking on a particular passage, when on close examination, their left hand fingers are tripping over themselves (or vice versa). Take the time to accurately identify any problems so you can attack them head on.
3. Isolate problem areas.
Identify problem areas within pieces and practice them over and over again. Highlight any especially difficult passage and play it 25 times out of context of the piece. This will allow for many more repetitions of the areas that need the most work.
4. Listen to yourself.
Part of understanding your weaknesses is knowing exactly how you sound as you play. But most beginners cannot play and listen accurately at the same time. Try using a tape recorder and listening back. Make it your goal to eliminate the difference between how you think you sound as you’re playing, and how you actually sound to yourself on tape.
5. Listen to others.
Music is an aural art. It’s just not possible to be a successful musician from a book or sheet of music alone. You must immerse yourself with the music you’re trying to play. You should spend at least some listening time very focused on the music, making the listening an exercise itself. This is most important if you’re trying to play a style that you didn’t grow up around.
6. Play slowly and clearly.
It’s important to play at a speed allows for accuracy so that you are training good habits. It’s much easier to hear and correct poor intonation, weak notes, picking or bowing problems, at a slow pace.
7. Play fast.
Playing slowly and clearly is great, but my experience with students is that if they only play slowly, they never get fast enough to play with others. Even if the hands have trouble keeping up, by trying to play fast, you’re teaching your mind to think faster. The hope is that eventually your hands will catch up. As somebody once said, “You can’t get fast by playing slow”.
8. Sing in your mind.
Whatever you’re trying to play should be heard in your inner ear. Most musicians do this so naturally, they would wonder why I bring it up, but I have found some beginners don’t know to do this. Make sure you are mentally singing your pieces. As a teacher, I can’t always tell if my students are doing this, so to check, I sometimes make them sing the piece out loud.
I’ve found that people who go out and get involved in local jams reach a higher level much quicker than those who stay at home. Playing with others is like developing a support group for your addiction. It is also very good at helping you play at real-world tempos (see #7) and learning to play through mistakes.
10. Find inspirations.
The key to success, in the long run, is to keep the passion for playing music. Often hearing the right player, whether it’s live or from a recording, can give a shot in the arm that will make practicing come easier. Buy CDs. Go out and hear live concerts. And don’t overlook books or films about the culture or history of the music you’re trying to play.
If you are nervous about playing with others (9), then Band-in-a-Box or a similar program to play along with can help you get there. It can also be a good “non-complaining” accompanist for when you want to go through your fiddle tunes for hours on end (1). It can be your metronome as you try to play slowly (6) or fast (7). If you have the Band-in-a-Box program but don’t want to take the time to enter the chords, I have done all the work. You can download a zip file containing the chord progressions for 161 fiddle tunes.