Practice Basics: What Good Practice Actually Looks Like
(This is a revision of a post that originally appeared on my old blog on June 2, 2013)
How can you tell if I've practiced?
Truthfully, no teacher can tell if you've attempted to practice. However, a competent teacher can tell when you have practiced well, practiced correctly and practiced enough. When it's obvious you haven't done this, it means one of the following things:
You practiced well, but didn't practice enough.
You spent time on the piece, but didn't practice correctly.
You didn't practice.
What are the symptoms of not practicing or bad practice?
1. The biggest and most common symptom is that you are not showing familiarity with the piece. The goal of practice should be to get off the sight-reading stage. I don't mean literal sight-reading, where you are playing a piece for the very first time with no previous practice. I mean the stage of learning where you're having to look at every single note, decide what to play, and then play it. Knowing a piece is going to remove hesitations. Knowing a piece is going to put you in a partially memorized state where you only need the music as reminders here and there. If you're having to stop, think about what to play, then play it...then you haven't practiced correctly and/or you haven't practiced enough.
2. You play with some degree of confidence, but are missing many notes/rhythms/other details. This is a case of preparing something correctly, and probably practicing enough, but not being careful in the early part of practice when you need to be sure what you're playing is correct.
3. You play well, but everything is way under tempo. You didn't practice enough.
If those are symptoms, what are causes of bad practice? How do I fix this?
First, look at this graph below. It can show the progress of an entire piece from first reading to mastery. It can even apply to a small section...even a single measure.
There's only one problem with it. That straight line from start to finish is COMPLETELY WRONG. If you go into your practice with expectation of smooth and steady progress, you are only going to achieve that if the new music is way too easy for you. In other words, smooth and steady progress is actually an indication that you're playing the wrong music!
Here's the way correct practice actually looks:
Look what happens. Nearly halfway through the time you expect to practice, you are barely making progress. It looks hopeless. It feels tedious. Why? It's because you are going v-e-r-y s-l-o-w. You are being careful, making sure that every note and rhythm is learned correctly; making sure that at some point you can maintain a slow and steady beat; making sure that you have added correct pedaling, dynamics, articulation and whatever details the music asks for. It's slow, but it's correct.
At some point, it finally feels good. It feels easy. I call this "The Click". Look what happens after the click. You take off! Practice gets fun! What you are now doing is taking the newly learned music and allowing it to feel easy and, if necessary, get faster.
To practice well, remember these 3 tips:
(1) Don't mistake "The Click" for being the finish line. Feeling comfortable with something is a beginning. Ride it through to the end when you really, truly, thoroughly know it. That's when music gets fun. I know this has happened when a student can only play their pieces with careful thought and a very slow tempo.
(2) Don't rush to the 2nd half, beyond the click. If going slow is difficult, going faster makes it worse - always! Don't dive ahead into repeating music over and over without first making sure at a very slow tempo that it is completely correct. I know this happens if the piece is confidently played, but with frequent mistakes.
(3) As a rule, work 2 to 4 measures at most with the above graph. It takes 5 to 10 minutes if you're on the correct level (and if your note reading is par for your playing) to go from mystery to mastery in that time. Trying a whole piece or even a large section will take a long, discouraging amount of time.
Always remember what correct practice looks like and what it doesn't.
Check out the podcast episode based on this topic here: