Quality versus Quantity: Developing a Focused Practice Regimen

Practicing is an important part of being a musician. It builds skills, increases repertoire and also contributes to stamina. It also helps us assert our identities as musicians. Musicians make music, ergo to rephrase a philosopher’s statement I play therefore I am. Years ago, when I was in music school, I regularly spent eight hours a day in the practice room. Three to four hours of this I spent specifically on exercises with the remainder dedicated to working on pieces, as well as some time spent sight reading others. This was in addition to the time I spent in class and doing my homework. I was young and driven by the desire to become the best player I could and a large part of that relied heavily on building the fundamental technical skills to do so. I definitely reaped the benefits of the time I dedicated to my avocation, and I still benefit from that groundwork I laid down over 25 years ago. Today, my life is different and I have a more complicated day-to-day existence in some ways. Now my approach to practice isn’t what it was then. For one thing, I don’t practice for eight hours a day, so I need to be more selective in how I approach things and work in a more specific goal oriented manner.

I’m not in any way stating that I no longer need to practice; quite the contrary, in fact. I still need to practice and I need to increase the amount of time I dedicate to it. At this point it’s a good day when I work in two hours dedicated to direct musical growth. At 52 I still have ample room for improvement; technically I’m not as proficient as I was 30 years ago, which, if I let myself dwell upon it, can be a source for bouts of depression. However, today what concerns me more than the technical issues is increasing repertoire. The bottom line is having sufficient repertoire to perform in multiple venues, in a variety of situations calling for different types and styles of music. So while technique is still a concern, it isn’t my go-to time commitment. Exercises are great but when it comes down to it, much of what we see as traditional exercise regimens can be covered in sections of music, which yields similar benefits to the drills while increasing performable pieces at the same time. We practice exercises to be able to execute pieces, so this approach double-teams the issue.

I haven’t ditched working on the technical exercises entirely, because I am comfortable with the process and I know the benefits it yields in terms of enabling me to be able to perform at a higher level. These drills do serve their purposes well and also provide material to warm up with. The thing is I have to budget my time in a way that maximizes applicable returns, so I’m getting the most out the time spent. Thus it becomes a question more of quality over quantity. This leads to a more goal specific approach to my practice time. I practice what I need to in order to achieve the goals set. If a piece calls for extended use of a right hand tremolo technique for me to be able to perform it, then that’s one of the focuses of my practice time, and working the sections of the piece that call upon that skill bring about the desired results, but if I’m not dealing with pieces that call for that skill, then spending the time developing it doesn’t fit the scheme of things, and doesn’t contribute to achieving the overall goal. Let’s face it, how many gigs can you do with a repertoire consisting of exercise drills?

So, currently I set my goals for my practice sessions based upon what needs to be accomplished from a performance perspective and prioritize based upon what I can learn on the job versus what I really need to sit down and spend concentrated effort working on. Much of what I do as a bass player with my current band simply requires sketching things out and then letting the parts settle in through rehearsal and performance. It doesn’t require a lot of concentrated practice time on my part to successfully work through the band repertoire, so unless we’re working on something that requires in depth technical attention, I don’t worry about it too much. My practice time ends up being focused on the finger-style and classical guitar work at hand, which does reap benefits for my bass playing as well through constant application of right hand work. I readily see a difference in my speed and dexterity due to this. When I practice, I spend some time warming up with exercises to get the hands moving in a healthy way without straining them, and then dive into the work I need to accomplish for the day, based on need and desire.

Practicing is a necessity, and any musician who states otherwise is definitely not performing to his or her potential, nor will he or she ever do so until actually sitting down and doing the work behind the art. Just like any other serious pursuit, success, no matter how you define it, requires spending time learning and reinforcing our fundamentals, particularly when we seek continued forward growth. Practice time provides that, but the quality of that time spent is entirely dependent upon the goals we set each time we sit down with our instruments. We need to bring focus to our efforts and a conscious in the moment approach to our practice time. Knowing the specifics of what we want to accomplish during our time spent radically increases the possibility that the time spent will be spent well.

 

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