How to become increasingly better on your musical instrument.

As I write books and produce instructional videos, I am constantly thinking about the relationship between practicing and getting better on one’s instrument. It’s a frequent topic in my writing and one on which I have much to say.

Notice that the subject of this post was not, “Become an instant virtuoso on your instrument with these three simple tips“. There is no magical shortcut to mastering a musical instrument. It takes a lifetime of work just like becoming a world-class athlete or physicist.

But you can reduce the time it takes to become accomplished if you are smart about how you approach your work on your instrument. In fact, you can get worse if you don’t think properly about how you practice or perform, even if you play your instrument five hours each day.

Does the following feel somewhat familiar?

Starting the day by warming up with the usual lip slurs, arpeggios, or scales. Once the chops get to that familiar loose more comfortable feeling, long tones are played for a few minutes in the middle range. The etude book is opened to the page it tends to fall open to and the well-known etudes are played though, stopping briefly at the more difficult parts that are often stumbled over, and playing them again until they are passible. Perhaps next is a run though on a solo or part that is being performed soon. A couple times through and a little repetition on the harder parts. A look at the clock says that enough time has passed and the chops feel worked. Time to end today’s practice session.

The above dramatization is the wrong way to practice. Why? Because it’s not pushing the boundaries or moving beyond the basic well-rehearsed playing you routinely do.  Remember This:

 

Let’s examine a better way to approach your practicing.

Here’s a great place to start: What do you want for an outcome? Now at first that sounds like a stupid question. “I want to play better.” Sure you do, but is that a definitive enough objective to drive results? I don’t think so. I think that to get where you want to go you need to clearly know the destination. Perhaps write some thoughts down in order to enable clarity.

Do you have a clear sound in your head that unambiguously reflects how you ultimately want to perform? Just wanting to play better doesn’t provide you with any direction. Your mind will help steer you in a direction if you first give it that direction. Think of your mind as your GPS tracker. Your haven’t input a destination if you simply want to play better.

Let’s get more concrete.

Two ineffective ways to practice lie at different ends of the spectrum: Practicing the same moderately easy things day after day, and practicing things with which you constantly struggle. The first, by keeping you in your comfort zone, lacks the challenge that strengthen and therefore advance your playing. The second ingrains a struggle within your playing that prevents you from accomplishing anything that can make you better. Plus you constantly live with the belief that you suck at your instrument. Not helpful!

The middle ground is where you want to be. Find things to play that are slightly above your current abilities but are at a level that you can master with a reasonable amount of work. Once you’ve conquered that, find the next thing that will dial up the degree of difficulty and do the same.

Take tonguing. Would you like to articulate faster using single tonguing? What is the fastest metronome setting over which you can consistently play sixteenth notes? This is not a test nor is there any wrong answer.  Find that tempo and increase it by three bpm. Can you consistently play sixteenth notes? You’re stumbling a bit? Good. Then that’s your tempo for the moment. Now practice that until you can consistently play those sixteenth notes. Once that becomes consistently doable, dial up another three bpm.

Next, take a look at something from my upcoming book, Rhythm Savvy. The theme of the book is on strengthening one’s sense of rhythm. I am creating a large number of exercises that cover a wide range of skill levels. Starting simple, turn on your metronome to a comfortable tempo for eighth notes. Maybe 120 bpm. Ideally, you’re recording this, but if not, exercise some deep focused listening.

Earlier above, just like you found the threshold of the fastest sixteenth notes that could be consistently played, now we’re looking for rhythmic complexity that challenges you. Try playing three eighth notes, one beat (two eighth notes) of rest, three eighth notes, two beats of rest, etc. If that was not challenging, try playing two eighth notes, two eighth rests, three eighth notes, two eighth rests, repeat over and over with the click.

Now, if that is too hard, slow down the metronome or put the metronome on eighth notes rather than quarter notes. The idea, again, is to find that sweet spot where you stumble a little but after some practice, are able to consistently play it. Now slightly increase the degree of difficulty. In this case, go back to quarter note clicks or increase the speed. I can tell you that with the metronome on 150 bpm quarter notes, that last exercise would be initially very hard for me. I’d need to back off the difficulty until I found the sweet spot of playable challenge.

Last, this is from the book. Listen to the audio file below. Within the audio file are three separate lines (rhythmic patterns) played over a drum track. Your mission is to play each line with the track and keep playing that pattern with the drums after the line stops being played. In other words, I’m starting you with the line and then letting you play it by yourself. Mid way through, I bring back the line to see if you are keeping the pattern. Soon, you’re back on your own, and at the very end the line comes back. Every time you hear the line, you are confirming that you are keeping the rhythmic pattern. This is repeated with three separate patterns throughout this audio file.

 

Now, even though the above audio file contains three different rhythm patterns, they still may be too difficult or too easy for you. Once the book becomes available, you’ll have many different such exercises to work on, from easy to difficult. Within that range you’ll find that sweet spot of challenge.

Regardless what you are practicing, keep in mind that you need to be on that edge of slightly too hard but playable with a reasonable amount of work. Do the work until it becomes consistently playable, then move up the degree of difficulty. THAT’S how you become increasingly better on your musical instrument.

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