Principles of Practice via Classical Music Techniques, Part 1

In my last piece, I spoke of how my training as a classical musician taught me about good practice skills. Today and in my next couple of pieces, in order to set the stage for a better vocabulary around what effective practice might look like, I want to talk about certain elements of those practice sessions.

I practiced about three hours a day back then. I spent the first hour or so doing warm-ups and drills--picking and finger-pattern exercises on guitar, Hanon exercises on piano, scales and arpeggios on both. I would start slow and slowly increase my speed. It wasn't exactly thrilling work but it served multiple functions. From a long-term perspective, drills serve as the foundation for technique. Smooth, efficient, tension-free playing is the heart of musical technique.

Perhaps less obviously, drills have a short-term function as well: they serve as the foundation for each individual practice session. Drills bring the student into the space of practicing. They don't require utmost concentration, at least at the start of a session when the tempo is slow. As the tempo increases, they require more concentration, which has the effect that concentration naturally deepens as the session goes on. Because drills aren't hard in the sense that practicing pieces is hard, drills serve to groove success.

It's also crucial to mention that drills help develop strength and dexterity in a way that also seeks to avoid injury, which is always an important concern for even a semi-serious musician.

In the second hour, I'd move on to the repertoire I was working on. In general, I would work from the easiest piece to the most difficult. Within each piece, I would put the bulk of my work into the most challenging sections. It's a truism in music that you put the majority of your time practicing your weak spots. Unlike in sports, where people sometimes successfully work around their weaknesses (think of the professional soccer player who's a wizard with one foot and dreadful with the other, or the tennis professional with the rocket serve but an otherwise mediocre game), in music this isn't an option: if you can play 95% of a piece but utterly trainwreck on that last 5%, you can't actually play the piece at all.

The way to practice the really challenging sections involves a lot of energy and deep concentration. First of all, those sections get separated from the rest of the piece, and then within those sections all sorts of techniques are applied to work through their challenges. I'd start by slowing the tempo way down from performance tempo. Maybe I'd practice one hand alone and then the other. I might play the melody alone, then the accompaniment alone. Sometimes, if a section was really giving me trouble, I'd try experimenting with different fingerings. The tactics were myriad.

If I could play a 95% of a piece, I probably spent 50-75% of my time on the other 5%.

Of course, solving the technical problems of a piece entirely out of context isn't the same thing as being able to put that solution successfully into play when the context returns. In exploring that aspect for this piece, I realized it was different enough from what I described so far that it deserves its own name. Instead of "practice," I call it "rehearsing," and I'll talk about rehearsing next week.

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