Robert J. Lawrence (Jimmy)
This week I have a quick solution for you. I've heard this message in so many different ways:
I don't have time to add another piece to my repertoire.
I don't have time to take up another instrument.
I don't have time to practice.
I don't have time to take music lessons. (Teachers & Parents, I'll have a blog for you on this. Email us.)
I don't have time to blog! (Oops! That's me.)
Time management could be its own blog. To keep things short and sweet, here's the deal:
Track, in some sort of time log, how much time you spend on every activity you do for an entire week. Eating, sleeping, playing video games, practicing, watching T.V., cooking, cleaning, utilizing the facility (yes, that facility), socializing, driving... I mean everything. Really, do this - because the answer to increasing your time for practicing that extra piece, or taking those music lessons is very simple:
When you've done your time-logging, you are going to find out how much time you really waste in a day. It will shock you. Take a look at all of those nonessential time-fillers (what game are you playing on your phone, right now?) and get rid of them right away - You've got a life to live!
Ok - I know, it's easier said than done. After all, throwing away habits takes some hard work, motivation, planning, and continuous tracking.
I wanted to share a new discovery with you.
This little app is changing the way I look at how I use my time. It's like an electronic, cloud-based time card that I can use to track anything I want, and organize them into categories and projects. Now I know when I've spent more time improvising than learning new chord changes, and I know when my practicing time is eating into my homework time - I also know when I haven't spent enough time the last couple of days writing or arranging music. The possibilities are endless, but now your excuses aren't.
Toggl has a highly useful free option (it's what I use): you can use it on Windows, OS X, Android, and iOS, or even in your browser, and it all syncs without trouble no matter where you use it. My advice: get Toggl!
(NOT a paid advertisement. Toggl, you're totally welcome to pay me, though!)
My first private music teacher was a machine - a video game, actually. It was called "The Miracle Piano Teaching System" for the Nintendo Entertainment System (or the NES for those of us old enough to remember). I still have it! Now that my son is reading fluently and independently, I thought it might be fun for him to try it out. So, I set it up, and gave the lessons a few runs to make sure everything was working properly. One of the earliest exercises in the game involved playing a five-finger position in time with a metronome. If you aren't familiar with the term "latency," what I experienced here was an enormous difference between the time the metronome clicked, the graphics of the keyboard on the screen, the sound of the instrument, and the instance where the software recognized my keystrokes. In order for the software to register me playing in-time "correctly," I had to play about a 16th note ahead of the beat - then I remembered something. I played through this screen before. For hours, for days, as a kid. And now I know why had such a hard time with it, after nearly twenty-five years!
This is just a small example of how important it is to have a present, real-life, in-the-flesh teacher for learning a musical instrument. And there are plenty of practical reasons... having someone correct misperceptions of hand-placement on the guitar, getting input on the nuance of large-body movements at the piano, getting a gentle palm on your lower-spine to correct your posture so you don't end up looking like Bill Evans... But, maybe more importantly, a teacher or mentor can have a profound influence on you not only as a musician, but as a whole person.
Thankfully, I was bribed into taking piano lessons with this game. What do I remember most about these early lessons? I was seven years old, so I remember playing computer games (see a theme, yet?) on her kids' computer while I waited for my lesson to start - sometimes I'd play with her kids, who were about my age, and I remember one of them showing me a fun box of magic tricks, which got me interested in that, too. But the lessons? Well, take this with a grain of salt, but I remember being yelled at: "F-sharp! F-sharp!" I remember being confused on how rhythmic values added up, and I hated having to write out my scales and their key signatures. But I also remember playing a recital - the first piece I remember performing was a "jazzy" little number that I really enjoyed - I still own it, hidden somewhere in my stash of recital pieces for my own students. I remember the feeling of being nervous about performing, and I remember seeing my grandparents clap at the end.
Although I didn't really take piano very seriously, I quickly "leveled-out" of my teacher, and my grandparents felt I should study with my Mom's old piano teacher -the running joke was, "and she was old, then!" This person, and her husband, became quick friends. Her husband would occasionally drive me home (I lived a whole two blocks away!), and I would sometimes help them with chores. My teacher pushed me, though. I wrote out those scales and key signatures, and you bet I had to go home and get my music if I forgot it - I was very forgetful, and I lost a lesson once. I only remember the once. But the music! She let me choose my repertoire (I'm sure she carefully selected my options), she explored my interests, and she let me play fast music. The challenge began to excite me, and this led to the discovery that, yes, I want to play, and yes, I do want to get better, and yes, I want to be challenged! MOAR PLZ!
But, as I mentioned, this isn't just about musical development.
She only charged $15 an hour. She didn't believe in contributing to inflation - she'd been charging that since she ran a studio out of San Francisco in the 50's (if I remember her words correctly). Naturally, her studio was quite busy, mostly with older ladies, but a few kids my age at the time. The older I got, starting in my teens, the more we entertained each other's company away from the studio. We spoke about faith and religion, charity, the future, their desires to go back to China and their adventures there. I asked for advice, mowed their lawn, chopped firewood, and shared meals with them.
My teacher, and her husband, were very dear to me, through every single developmental phase. When I started college, she began to give me masterclasses on piano teaching. And soon after, I was helping her husband into and out of bed while whatever mixture of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's took hold. I got to know his regular caregivers. I had the privilege of sharing these experiences with my teacher near the end of her husband's life - everything from him sneaking a sample of cat food, to forgetting where he was, who I was, and the few moments of lucidness where we shared memories. I am grateful for those moments.
Naturally, my teacher, mentor, and friend would also find herself preparing to meet her husband. I was also privileged to be a part of this last part of their story. Even so, she continued to offer me lessons and advice on teaching and my performance. It was very hard to see her increasingly lose her dexterity and desire to perform. I performed a piece she was helping me compose at her memorial service - what an honor!
Clearly not every person is going to have such a close relationship with their teacher or mentor. But to a varying degree, some elements here are important for new students and parents to consider:
A teacher can be a huge moral influence - get to know your teacher as much as you can, because they will have insight based on their life experiences that you will not have. Oftentimes, they will share things with you that can shape your perceptions, influence your decisions, and even lift you up out of despair.
They have more skills than you think - My teacher gave me lessons in pedagogy and composition, among others. Some people might not think to ask for help with their compositions, theory homework, or improvisation - tap into that person's vast sea of knowledge and skills!
Community - Very often, a skilled teacher is a valued member of their community. They are in touch with other influential people and professionals that you may eventually want to be in contact with. Getting familiar with your teacher, as appropriate, can open up doors socially, politically, and professionally.
Of course, results may vary! I highly doubt I would have continued studying piano without having this particular teacher in my life, no matter how much my grandparents made me practice - I danced with the idea of video game programming in high school, but fate would lead me to continue studying and composing, and even learning additional instruments. Many students make the assumption that they can "learn it themselves," because so-and-so was self-taught. And on occasion, this is certainly possible - but unlikely. Even the "self-taught" masters of their instrument had mentors, so I encourage you to get in touch with a teacher that will be a huge influence on your life, whether you know it yet or not.
If you have a story about a special teacher or mentor in your life, please share it with us in the comments!
-by Robert J. Lawrence
Robert J. Lawrence - (Jimmy)
Getting mad and letting go
This is really for me – I can get very volatile when I am not getting what I want out of practice. I can get so frustrated, that I end up laughing about how ridiculous my anger really is. This is great, because it can relieve some stress and get me to realize that a particular task is a lost cause for that moment; and that’s ok too. If your mind and your body is working against you, why fight it? Move on, and try something else. You can always come back to it at a better time.
Feel free - express yourself (with movement and emotion)
I’ve said it before – music isn’t just notes. The ancient Greeks knew how music influences our emotions, and of course it is still true today. Even if you feel like today’s music is watered down and has no emotional pull (every generation does!), when it comes down to it, anyone who can allow themselves to really experience the music will be impacted at more than just an emotional level. But they can only feel that if you are conveying it. When you practice, especially if you’re working through an entire piece, play it for an audience, even if it’s just yourself. Say what you want to say with your music – don’t just play it.
Practice is a part of life
It’s time to accept that practice is a part of the life experience of a musician. We learn from it, we develop technical facility, we grow musically. This is what it really means to practice. Practice is not a replacement for performance. It doesn’t replace the times when we just want to play music. It’s a whole other animal, one that we need to nourish in order improve our enjoyment in playing music, and make our performances really shine.
There is no such thing as perfect
Accepting that practice is a part of life will make it so much easier to understand that nothing we do is ever perfect; we can always improve, develop, and expand. You might be happy with your performance; great! Can it be even better? Well, yes! Not only better, but different as well! You are a human being, and you will always have something new to deliver, something new you want to express – even with the same repertoire. There is always room for growth, and you are never done being a musician.
Practice differently (again, again)
Once more, we can change how we think about practice. Think about what your music sounds like to an audience. Close your eyes, and play your piece in a grand hall. You have a message to deliver, and it is important. If you’re thinking about this practically, your vivid experience of practicing your piece in front of a live audience (in your head) will make it so much easier when you actually perform for one. This is especially true for those of us who get a bit shaky in front of an audience.
Practice should be fun, engaging, challenging, and rewarding (and not necessarily all at the same time). Our attitude is likely the most important thing we should change, and this change will come from within. Though, I hope what I have written will make that change at least a little easier. We all know that there is more to life than mere “fun” – the reward to effective practice is of course the results; but even practice in and of itself should be rewarding – fun is a fleeting feeling, but accomplishment and insight lasts forever.
Have you had any significant struggles or successes in your practicing? Share your experiences with us in the comments below!
Robert J. Lawrence (Jimmy)
Finally, let’s deal with the concept that practice is boring in the first place. Practice is not a necessary “evil.” It is a rewarding experience that helps us refine our craft and furthers our enjoyment of music itself. If we approach practice with the assumption that it is “boring,” then we are setting ourselves up to subconsciously find things that make it so. We can change our attitudes toward the practice of practice – and the following should help:
Look at the big picture
I’m not just talking about the music you’re working on. I really mean the big picture. Why do we practice? What does practice do for us? How far do we want to go? Really, there is no end to the development of our musical skills. Even tenured virtuosos have things they strive to improve on. They practice, too – probably more than you or I. Marco Minnemann, arguably one of the most coordinated and time-warping virtuoso drummers out there has said that he’ll often practice up to eight hours in a day. EIGHT! Can you imagine!? And he even has a coach! Practice is what will get us where we want to be and beyond. And you’ll discover that there is always something new that inspires you to keep learning. This is a good thing, and should be embraced!
Think about your goals
Goal setting is so important. I know only a few that can aimlessly wander through their journey and still become proficient at their trades. Most of us, however, should understand what we are working toward, and gauge our progress in order to continue to set new goals. You can think about goals in many different ways:
What are your experiences with goal-setting? Share with us in the comments below!
Robert J. Lawrence (Jimmy)
There is a next-level to your quest for solving the practice problem. I’ve talked about engagement and focus, and the following is going to lend to that engagement by giving you many more things to think about during your practice:
One of the most surprisingly impactful things to keep in mind, particularly for pianists (but this applies to everyone) is economy of motion. As my teacher has indicated, why make your fingers (and all their various muscles and ligaments) work so hard when your wrist can do most of that work with ease? Or your forearm? Or your shoulders? Really spend time looking at how much work you’re doing and see if there is a better, more efficient, and easier way.
There is more to music than playing a bunch of notes with rhythmic accuracy; utilizing the larger muscle groups can also lend to improved phrasing. I am always annoyed at myself when I realize that I am playing like a robot. Allowing the body (yes, the whole body) to be more free and fluid gives the music a sense of flow, because, well, it’s almost like dancing. Thinking about how your body desires to move through a passage can offer a lot of insight into how the music itself wants to flow – just remember to keep in mind what the composer is showing you what to portray, and usually it will make sense and you can reconcile it with your larger movements.
Voicing and touch
As for voicing and touch, which are a little more on the finer detail end of this spectrum – though still influenced by the aforementioned motion – think about which notes are most important. If you’ve ever compared a MIDI track to a real performance of the same piece, you’ll notice that there is no life to it. That’s because a good performer has worked out that some notes are more important than others, even in the same chord. And it’s more than just “velocity” (volume); the combination of velocity, articulation, and even start/end time for each note has an impact on how a piece feels. Quick tip: usually, it’s the highest voice that’s most important. But don’t let that fool you; watch for where the melody is, the counter-melody, important bass notes and even small motives. This is where analyzing your piece really shines – knowing which voices and chunks to pull out of the music is personal and one of the most effective ways of differentiating your performance from a bland, soulless, MIDI-esque sound into a meaningful and purposeful one.
Percussionists – from the technique you use to the exact location you strike the drum, this applies to you too. This is why your teachers want your rudiments to be practiced both open and closed, forte and pianissimo, and with a variety of grips and techniques (German, French, Moeller, Finger-Control, etc.)
Drummers – Yeah, you too. How loud is your ride compared to your snare? And how loud is your snare compared to your kick? Just sayin’.
Record & listen
I hate listening to myself on a recording. When you practice, or even when you’re performing, for some reason our mind lets go of all the little nuances that didn’t go as planned. So it really shouldn’t be the only time you listen to yourself; record your playing, get out a pencil and your music, and get ready to take notes. This is a time you can really tell what you need to work on during your practice. Also take the time to listen to others perform the music you are working on – and don’t just listen to professionals! Youtube is a great place to learn what you are doing well, and where you can improve. It also opens you up to other interpretations of the piece that you may want to incorporate (or avoid, for that matter).
Practice differently (again)
Dive deep into your subconscious by practicing away from your instrument. Get into your own head, and go through an entire performance – think about how your fingers feel on the instrument, where your limbs should be, how it should sound. Really try to recreate the performance in your mind as if it were really happening – you might surprise yourself with your own concentration. It’s also a great way to meditate, and if you don’t have access to your instrument while traveling, this will keep your mind sharp and ready for when you do.
Have you tried some of these strategies? Please tell us about it in the comments section!
Robert J. Lawrence (Jimmy)
Fun is good and rewarding, but improving the way you practice is going to make it even easier for you. I’ve said it several times already, but if you’re engaged, if you’re focused, time will fly and you may find yourself wishing you had reserved even more time for your practice session due to how productive it was.
Practice less and get more done
I’m going to once again stress the need to avoid mindless run-throughs of your pieces. Work on the parts of your music that need the most work. Why take the repeats (for now) when you already have that section down? Actually, why play through the piece to get to that tough spot? Just jump straight to it, and work it out. You can always do a run-through of your piece when you’ve felt like you’ve worked through the rough spots. Then, get out your pencil (or dry-erase marker, if you put your music in transparent sleeves like I do) and mark up the spots to work on next.
Work on transitions between learned sections
Now that you’ve worked through the small sections and kinks, link those sections together. In fact, just work on the link at the end of one section and the beginning of the next, because those are the places that are most likely to give you trouble.
Get lost in the details with deep focus
This is about being engaged, again. If you’re mindful about what you are practicing, thinking about all of the various things you should be working on (phrasing, fingering, voicing, etc.) then you’re not thinking about how long you’ve been practicing or how much more time you have until you’re done.
Make time fly by slowing down
The dreaded “slow practice.” What you’re teacher has been saying (hopefully) is true. Fumbling through a difficult passage repeatedly might work after a long while – sometimes – but if you slow it down and instead play it perfectly from the outset, a few things happen:
Spend time analyzing a piece
The more you know about your music, the easier it will be to work through it – memorization, phrasing, dynamics, and more will be more accessible because you’ll have a clearer grasp of what the composer’s intent was. Or for that matter, your own intent that you wish to convey to your audience. Also, sometimes just knowing that there is a repeated section, phrase, or motive can help you feel like you’re accomplishing more than you thought.
Spend time organizing your practice
Remember how I set a practice schedule for myself? Although I was TERRIBLE at keeping my schedule, it did help me realize that I was wasting a lot of time – which eventually made me realize what was really important about my practice sessions. Even if you don’t meet your goals, you’ll know what you should be working on, and some of you out there with a stronger willpower to keep on schedule will see the most benefit. Don’t let it stop you from setting a schedule if you’re wishy-washy like I was. It’s still an important and beneficial skill to prioritize your time.
Do you have any nasty habits slowing down your practice, or hindering your efficiency? Sometimes sharing them with others can help you be more aware - give it a shot in the comments!
Robert J. Lawrence (Jimmy)
Ok, so everyone probably wanted to hear this first – how can I make practice more fun? Here are some quick and easy tips:
Sometimes a simple extrinsic reward after a robust practice can help make the “trouble” that much more enjoyable. Looking forward to a sweet treat or some videogames (or whatever external reward may motivate you) is the icing on the cake. If you are easily distracted by your favorite music, another helpful thing is to commit to playing that stuff only after a specific allotted time of productive practice, or after reaching small, short, attainable goals.
Allow time to explore and create
Along the same lines of playing your favorite music, save some non-practice time for checking out some music that interests you. It will help your sight-reading and give you a break, all while keeping your interest and willpower high. Also try composing some new music (at your instrument) during this time – it’s a good skill to learn, and can be very rewarding.
Try something new
Always have at least a small library of new music around. Reward yourself with some new piece, even something “below” your level. Having something new to chew own will up your interest and keep your motivation high – after all, success (with an easier piece) can breed success, and that always feels good.
Tweak your practice – try playing through a piece without touching the keyboard (or guitar strings, or without touching the bow to the strings, without blowing through the flute, you get the idea). Play it swung. Doing scales? Play your right hand staccato & piano and the left hand legato & forte. Or, play the right hand swung and the left hand inverted swing (Swiss-triplets for us percussion/piano combo players). Guitarists, play them with the right hand (that’ll throw your brain for a loop). There are all kinds of ways to really mix things up, and they will force you to think and get out of the routine of mindless practice, which can end up being very fun and/or engaging.
Really try something new – make it up yourself! Your ear and experience will tell you what sounds good, so go with it. Better yet, when you do come up with something interesting or fun, write it down. I’m a little biased, because I’m a composer – but there’s nothing more rewarding than playing or hearing a piece of good music that you wrote yourself. I’m going to stress it again: write it down, or you’ll regret not remembering that awesome riff/lick/phrase you played the other day.
Sure - music can be hard work, but it needs to be fun, too. What kind of things do you find the most rewarding about playing an instrument or singing? Let us know in the comments:
Robert J. Lawrence (Jimmy)
What practice isn’t
Let’s start by biting off the biggest parts of this problem – there are some things that you and I both do during our practice time that really doesn’t qualify as actual practice. If you remember my struggles from before, playing through an entire piece over and over again is not practice. Sure, we often need to memorize our pieces, and this really does take many playthroughs – but usually, we’re just going through the motions… and this is not doing much to advance our musicianship. If you’re working through your music end-to-end, and you’re not listening, analyzing, emoting, and projecting (among myriad other tasks), then you’re just functioning as a barely-living player piano for an audience of none. Yawn. No wonder you’re bored!
Another thing – are you practicing your scales and arpeggios? Most students find that boring and uninteresting as well. However, as I mentioned before, if you aren’t truly engaged in the task, of course it’s going to bore you! I recall saying to my jazz instructor, “I don’t need to work on my scales. I’ve done my time!” However, this was a folly on my end. I can always work on my scales, and it will improve my fingering and speed, which will lead to more confident performance and improved sight-reading skills. However, if that isn’t your goal, why do it? Don’t “practice” scales just to please your instructor. That’s not practicing – it’s just going through the motions.
Finally, I also have to say that twenty minutes isn’t a practice session. It’s barely a warm-up. This doesn’t give you enough time to really engage with your studies neither mentally nor physically. Along the same lines – and this is a huge pet-peeve of mine – your lesson is not a practice session. It is a time to refocus your study, allow yourself to be corrected (so you don’t continue making the same mistakes in your practice), gain insight from your instructor and his/her observations of your performance, and solidify your goals. Your teacher is just that; a teacher, a mentor. Not your practice-master. You should always warm-up before a lesson (to be prepared), and practice afterwards (to lock-in what you just learned).
Practice is individual
All of this being said, your practice is not going to look the same as mine – or anyone else’s, for that matter. Everything I’m writing about here is for you to take and mold into what you believe is going to be your most productive/effective “best-practice.” Practice is practice, performance is performance, and sometimes we might want to just play – and there’s nothing wrong with that! These are all just some guidelines that I’ve observed make for a more productive and rewarding practice.
So far, what does practice mean to you? Has your perception of what practice is changed over time? Let us know below:
Robert J. Lawrence (Jimmy)
9/20/15: Before we start - welcome to Exodus Music! This article was published in seven parts on our old website. We will begin adding graphics and interactive content, as well as downloadables to our blogs in the near future - in the meantime, I'd really love your feedback in the comments: What kind of content would you like to see in our blog? Thanks, and enjoy!
My own struggles
I would sit at the piano, and begin playing through whatever piece I wanted to work on – sometimes playing through it two or three times. Then I'd pull out the next piece, and the next, and after about a half hour, I would give myself a "break" because I was bored out of my mind. Later in life, I set up a routine, to start with warm-ups, follow with repertoire, and finish by playing through music I really enjoyed – but it was so hard to follow through with the routine, and I'd often get distracted and just end up playing through my already learned music. I was not very productive, and I still found myself bored and uninterested, even through my desire to play more and more difficult and interesting pieces. I would often get lost in an improvised idea, which actually led to more frustration due to a lack of progress.
Many budding musicians have a hard time practicing – or wanting to practice for that matter. Although my practicing has improved drastically over the years, I can definitely relate – but when your life becomes so busy that it's hard enough just to make time to practice, then I hope this blog will help you get the most out of your practice time, and enjoy it, too.
Why practice is important
All professional musicians practice – even those who play full-time (some of them say they don't, but I'm going to say that those performing twelve hours a day are probably engaged in what I'd call "active practice" – something I'll talk about in another post). You don’t need a teacher to tell you how important practice is – but we do tell our students anyways, because most students struggle with making time to practice. Effective practice works on our musicianship in so many ways:
Does the thought of practicing fill you with dread or anxiety? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.
Get ready to make practice more rewarding, and check out part 2!
Jimmy here! My desire is to help others grow musically - especially those who don't have access to resources. I'm a husband, father of three, graduate student, and music educator.