Effective practicing of a musical instrument

I’m reading a fascinating book called Musical Excellence by Aaron Williamon. Its subtitle is Strategies and Techniques to Enhance Performance. It’s a thoroughly researched book covering subjects as broad as how to practice, physical fitness, memorizing music for performance, mental skills training, and even drug use and its effects on performance.

Early on, Williamon writes about musical achievement and weighs in on the debate over nature versus nurture.

Dispelling the myths of child prodigies seemingly born with their lifelong gift, Williamon quotes several studies that conclude that focused work over a long period of time is the path the greatness. He looks at both the 10,000 hour rule popularized by Malcom Gladwell in his book, Outliers, and the 10 year rule proposed by Ericsson, K.A. The Road to Excellence: The Acquisition of Expert Performance in the Art and Sciences, Sports, and Games (1996).

The book caters toward classical music, so his examples of reaching significant achievement at the 10 year mark include Berg, Liszt, Mozart, and Shostakovich, all of whom took ten years of composing before producing their first masterwork. Mozart is often used as an exception, but in fact he didn’t write his first masterwork until 13 years of composing. Now, I’m under no illusion that I’ll turn into Mozart after another few years of composing. Clearly, he’s an anomaly, but it does suggest that even he didn’t emerge from the womb composing great music!

How to get the most out of the time you spend practicing

Is ten–in terms of years or thousands of hours–the magic number? I think not. What you spend your time doing is, in my opinion, more important than the number of hours you spend doing it. The cliche, Practice Makes Perfect is a myth. Practice can actually make you worse if you habitually practice bad methods of playing, poor posture, pieces well out of your current abilities, etc.

Williamon admits that no definitive study has ever quantified the quality of “talent”. Surely it exists. Trombone Shorty, Joey Alexander, and Tiger Woods readily come to mind. But even these greats spent a massive amount of time practicing their respective craft.

Intent and long-range vision seems to play an important role in musical instrument proficiency. A study by McPherson and Zimmerman (Self Regulation of Musical Learning, Oxford University Press, 2002) found that achievement during the first nine months of music lessons was determined less by the amount of practice than by their commitment to the instrument. Regardless how much practice they did, students who believed they would be playing their instrument throughout their schooling made more progress than those who felt they’d only be playing for a few years.

Sheer hours of practice do not determine musical prowess. Besides possessing a clear vision of your outcome, effective practice strategies have also proven to provide faster and better learning. Rather than going through physical motions, Williamon characterizes effective practicing as “deliberate” practice. Improvement in any skill requires setting goals that are attainable from the current skill level and which lead to the development of effective strategies. Progress must be constantly monitored and new routes to improvement must be continually explored.

Williamon writes that the everyday grind of practice often seems most salient, however effective practice is anything but routine. Rather, it is a matter of continuous, creative problem solving, self evaluation, and striving.

He breaks down the fundamental characteristics of effective practice into the following categories:

  1.  Concentration  The ability to concentrate fully on the task at hand is probably the most important characteristic of effective practice for musicians
  2. Goal Setting  Limit the number of objectives to be dealt with in order to focus attention on a small number of problems, mastering them instead of returning to them time and time again. This helps avoid bad motor habits that later will need to be laboriously undone.
  3. Self Evaluation  Knowledge of a goal being accomplished or not requires feedback about success and failure. Williamon recommends, as I do, that recording one’s practicing and critically listening back is essential in order to develop an objective view of one’s current skill and attainment of a goal. Teachers provide this feedback, but only within the limited confines of a lesson.
  4. Strategies  Meeting goals depends on developing an effective practice strategy to meet the needs of the moment. Effective practice depends on a wide range of strategies that can be flexibly deployed.
  5. The Big Picture  As mentioned above, effective practice demands the ability to keep in mind the larger musical picture, the “artistic image” of a piece, performance and lifelong musical goals

The results of one’s thousands of hours practicing come down to the effectiveness of the time spent. Because of the large amount of time required for mastery, even small differences in afficiency may accumulate over years, resulting in very large differences in accomplishment.

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