How to Practice

Where to Start?

I was thinking recently about the ways in which I learned how to practice. In so doing, I came across an old memory of a time before I knew how to do that. Though it had been sitting on a shelf in my mind for a good while and was wrapped in bumble-bee yellow “warning” tape, it wasn’t very dusty. This is because it’s a memory I recall frequently enough. Mostly, I use it as a reminder of an important lesson. Other times, it’s just fun to cringe at one’s younger self. Hence the warning tape. Lots of cringe.

I Got This

how to practice learning curve

The thing about learning something new is that you really don’t know how much you don’t know. Sure, that’s cliché, but it’s totally worth keeping in mind. There will inevitably be a point at which you feel like and believe you’re really getting good. This usually comes right before a hard crash into the realization that you’re in the middle of an ocean, not a pond. Once that happens, suddenly everywhere you look is an unbound horizon of knowledge that you just don’t have. But, right before that, there’s a period of arrogance. “I got this, I totally got this!”

No… No I Don’t Got This

This “rise before the fall” moment is exactly where I found myself upon entering into music school in my early 20’s. I had been practicing 10 hours a day for a few months. Pieces I could never have imagined playing just a short while ago were down to muscle memory. The school had accepted me based on my application performances. I was so ready for this.

I could have been more wrong, but I certainly wasn’t even close to being right. I didn’t know hardly anything about music theory, let alone how to employ scales, chords, modes, etc. while improvising over jazz harmonies. Sure, I had experience practicing all day every day for a while, but I didn’t have a developed practice habit. All I had done is get good enough to think I was good.

Then reality set in.

The Fall

My first semester at school culminated in me walking out the door about half-way through. I had no intention of going back. Every day we were being tested on something, performing in front of our class of peers and a pro ensemble. Every day I was failing miserably while my classmates, though they struggled, managed to make something akin to music. My playing was more akin to the old comedy skit where every direction you step flings a board up into your face. Smack, smack, smack! Boy, that hurts.

And after a day of that, I’d go back home and practice for an hour or so then just hang out. Chill. I’m prepared for tomorrow.

I wasn’t.

plank with face

Light in the Dark

It took me a while, a couple months of daily failure, but enough hits to the face finally knocked the arrogance out. That and being swamped with tons of new material every single day in class. The grand realization at last came to me: I wasn’t going to skate through this education, not at all. Fortunately I had plenty of resources to teach me how to learn. Instructors with years of developing effective habits, books full of material and step-by-step guides, and classmates all conspired to help me unravel the great mystery of practice.

Still, it didn’t come easily. Learning to be methodical and disciplined in my routine took time. And the all important lesson of taking healthy breaks came much later. Eventually I reached the point of a developed approach that saw me through from about 7am to 11pm every day. With this figured out, I still struggled but was certainly stepping on far fewer planks.

Not For Everyone

Obviously, my routine wouldn’t be for everyone. I was taking it very seriously. Most people play for fun and as a hobby. The fundamental lesson is still valid, though. A structured course of practice, whether it’s 30 minutes or 3 hours, will make an incredible difference in how you progress in a new skill. Consistent, focused work will teach you much more quickly.

Of course, the end goal is to have fun and just play. The practice just helps you get there faster.