How (not) to practice music

Wow! It has certainly been a long time since I have posted. I am going to blame the loss of my computer and the summer break for it. Anyway, on to the post.

Many parents, teachers, and music students struggle in the area of practicing. I know I did. When I was in high school, my voice teacher would assign me music. I was a typical teenage boy and seldom practiced, however.

My practicing problem was exacerbated when I went to college. My undergrad school would assign us a certain amount “practice hours” that we had to complete each week. The intention was to make sure that we as students would actually practice.

What actually happened was quite different. When I went to the “practice shacks” to rehearse, my general modus operandi was to sing for about 30 minutes. I would then go get a drink of water, and then talk to some friends. After that, I would practice for maybe another 10 minutes until another friend came into my practice room, whereupon we would talk for a great deal longer. When the friend left, I might sing a little more, then I would go get a drink of water. This cycle would repeat itself until I finished my required time for that evening. It all boiled down to being in the practice room for the requisite amount of time.

This may seem legalistic of me (and I did feel somewhat guilty), but that was the way it went down. I had a difficult time understanding why we had to stay there. What if I already knew the music and had it memorized? Wasn’t this whole exercise a waste of time? I felt trapped, and this feeling sapped my will and desire to practice.

The problem, I believe, lay in two places. (1) I was a immature and a bit of slacker. (2) The system was flawed.  I was told to practice certain pieces of music for a certain period of time, but was not given specific goals. Surely, there must be a better way to practice. And there is.

The goal of practicing is to learn (1) the music and (2) the proper techniques required to perform that music. To that end, a musician should have specific goals. The musician should set the goal of learning a particular portion of their song during practice. The musician should also try to incorporate the techniques he/she have been taught. When musicians work this way, they are being productive.  Accomplishing those goals encourages the student to work harder.

I think an illustration will help illuminate what I am talking about. When I was in grad school, I learned my part for Gianni Schicchi piecemeal. My opera workshop would tell me what part needed to be learned when. The part I was going over in opera workshop took precedence to the parts I was not. We didn’t have a mandatory amount of hours to practice. Students practiced for as much time as they needed to learn/memorize the music. My teacher would also be working with me on certain techniques to incorporate into my singing.

What I am saying is this: BJU should scrap the old system of mandatory hours. All it accomplishes is student irritation and mindless repetition of material. Rather, voice teachers should give the student specific, attainable practice goals to reach before the next lesson. That way, the student will know what to practice, and will also be learning the proper way to practice.

The system I am proposing will remove certain problems. First, there will be no uncertainty in the student as to what the teacher wants. When expectations are clear, there is less stress in the student-teacher relationship. Second, the system makes both students and teachers responsible for the learning process. The teacher needs to give the goals and the tools for the attainment of those goals for that week’s practice sessions. The student must practice those goals. Third, the teacher has specific criteria with which to grade. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is not to know what your teacher is grading!

Practicing should be a relatively painless process. Unfortunately, many musicians fail to grasp how to do it properly. They waste time because they don’t understand how to be effective. Musicians must practice with specific goals in mind. Only then will great musicianship be achieved.