In my previous article I presented the idea of shaking up the way you practice your instrument. Using a ‘goal-based’ method rather than the outdated ‘hour a day’ schedule can help you find more meaning, joy, and accomplishment from your daily practice time. Now that you’ve changed the way you approach practicing, it’s time to talk about a few tips that will help you make the most out of the time you have to practice and reach those goals faster!
This is going to sound pretty basic, but the speed at which you practice a difficult passage has the most bearing upon the speed at which you will learn it. All too often, I see my students taking a difficult phrase and practicing it over and over. While I’m happy that they are using their time efficiently and ‘practicing, not performing’, I do tend to see many of them making the same mistake - they are practicing the difficult phrase at performance speed.
Anthony LaMagra, my most influential piano teacher, told me something one time that took a while to resonate. After observing me playing the same 4 measures of a Bartók piece about 10 times, he said to me ‘You know Matt, fast music is nothing but slow music played very fast’. We both laughed a bit and I thought his rather obvious observation a bit funny and chalked it up to the eccentricities of a funny, old Italian guy. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that it hit me. What he was saying was a fairly profound statement.
Take a particularly difficult phrase and play it at 1/3 speed. If you can’t play it at 1/3 speed, what makes you think you’ll be able to play it at full speed? If you can’t play it accurately 100% of the time at mm. 50, how is it that you expect to be able to play it even remotely accurately at mm. 150? Every single time you play a phrase at full speed during practice and make a mistake, you’ve just wasted seconds of your life. Multiply that by the hundreds and it balloons up into minutes and hours. I’ve made a policy for myself (and it’s tough to stick by, I know!) to stop and drop 20 bpm off of the tempo every single time I make a mistake when I’m practicing. Then I crank it back up again after I’ve played that section a few times without error. It can feel like you’re slowing things down, but in terms of how fast you actually get a tough sequence ‘under your fingers’ you’ll find you’re actually saving a TON of time.
As an addendum to the concept of slowing it down, I often add in ‘play the phrase you are practicing plus 2 notes’ to the mix. All too often, I’ll have a student slow it down and nail that tough phrase, but getting that phrase back ‘in context’ with the piece as a whole can be difficult. That’s why I also suggest sticking with the rule of practicing the difficult phrase, plus the first 2 notes of the next measure. This way, when it’s time to work that tough passage back into the song, it won’t be isolated. You’ve connected it to the rest of the piece that you can already play.
Changing a routine that you’ve stuck with since you were young can be challenging, but stick to it! Practicing the right way can be faster and more rewarding than rote memorization, and practicing in this method can leave a lot more room in your day for playing the type of music you are most passionate about; and if you’re already practicing the music you’re most passionate about, you’ll learn it that much faster!