Most people who want to learn to play a musical instrument don’t stop to consider that they might need to learn how to practice the device first. Over the years of taking classes, no instructor guided me in practice, only that I should. I can’t believe I just realized this, but it’s accurate. If I had known how to practice sooner, I could have made tremendous strides in my playing ability. Even though my practice wasn’t helping, I persisted out of a pure passion for the instrument and determination to play.
The tragedy is compounded by the fact that I rarely encounter a music student, adult, or child with a firm grasp on practicing, including those who take weekly lessons. The worst part is that mastering practice techniques take ten minutes. Many aspiring musicians, I think, give up too soon because they don’t know how to practice, and so they assume they don’t have the talent or ability to become successful musicians.
This is how most young musicians hone their skills before they learn the proper techniques. As stated by the teacher, the homework is an eight-bar song with four notes every measure for 32 messages. They take up the piece for rehearsal, and the process goes as follows… OK, get your fingers ready for the first note; play the first note; pause briefly as you remember where the second note is; play the second note; OK, what’s the third note; oh right, that’s a difficult one; repeat. OK, let’s give it a shot… ugh, that wasn’t very good, try again… ugh, another clam, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to play that note, OK, keep going… fourth note is where? OK, that’s a long shot… ouch… reach, reach… got it… played it… where’s the next one… etc. They are finished after bumbling through all 32 notes in under 4 minutes. When performed quickly (in 20 seconds), the piece sounds great, but when played slowly (in 3 minutes), it doesn’t sound like music, and the performer’s fingers (or other body parts) suffer, and they wonder how much longer and how many more times they need to grind through the piece to get better. Have you heard this before, or does your kid?
Using this strategy reinforces the student’s perception that playing is intricate and practice is boring. When this is added to other factors, such as a lack of progress, doubt, boredom, or worries about starting too late, it’s easy to see how giving up could become an option. This is because the practice method employed does not target the primary barrier to entry in musical instrument learning: muscle memory.
Even if you’re not a muscle physiologist, you’ve probably heard the term “muscle memory” used to describe taught behaviors that have become automatic. Through practice, your muscles “learn” to “remember” the sequence of actions you have “learned” and to execute them with the appropriate time, pressure, and speed. After the necessary information has been memorized, the corresponding muscles know “how” to act and perform it automatically. The ability to automatically play a note, chord, or scale is the foundation upon which a musician’s entire technique rests.
Let’s review our past efforts in training. When we force ourselves to play the piece with long pauses and frequent mistakes, we not only make it more challenging but also impede our muscles from learning the music. Memory increases in forces are maximized with rhythmic repetition. And without that, all of our time spent training is for naught.
So therefore, how should one proceed? Let’s review the assignment our professor assigned. This time, we will focus on the opening two notes and get them down pat before moving on to the rest of the piece. The two notes for “light-ly” will be played repeatedly if we’re performing “Lightly Row,” a traditional song for beginning musicians. When teaching a student to play an instrument, I have them play only the first two beats while their teacher or accompanist sings the remaining beats, making the song sound like “lightly – three – four, lightly – three – four, lightly – three – four…” To get these notes down, we may have to go extremely slowly at first (35 BPM on the metronome), but once we have them down, we can gradually increase the metronome pace (or pencil tapping, or whatever) to reach the desired result. We ensure the notes are still being played correctly and in time as the tempo increases. My seven-year-old daughter and I have a running joke where we play piano, and I tap harder and faster until I can’t sing any quicker, and she jumps off the bench laughing. We’re looking for a quick and entertaining exercise to help build muscle memory and quickness.
The third note is added, and the tempo is reset to 35 beats per minute: “light-ly-row-four, light-ly-row-four…” Repeat the same procedure, accelerating gradually to full speed. The fourth note is then added. The learner is now playing a full measure of music in and of itself, complete with a beat, a distinct melody, singing and fun, and muscle absorption.
A reasonable stopping point is after around 15 minutes or when we’ve played a full measure (four notes). Muscle memory, in my experience, benefits from bursts of energy (playing as quickly as possible while maintaining good time) followed by brief periods of rest. If the student is eager to continue working, the break could last as little as 30 minutes, as long as several hours, or even a whole day. Do whatever serves the purpose best. If the student needs to review the first three notes again, do so at the start of the following practice session and then move on to the fourth and fifth notes. The trick is to repeat the same exercise repeatedly, at first slowly and then more quickly.
Can advanced players benefit from this strategy? You might need to go slower than 35 beats per minute (BPM), or you could need to go faster. It doesn’t matter if you start at 20 beats per minute or 80; all that matters is that you get those first two notes down. Even if you’re working on something much more complicated than a “Lightly Row” tune with a single message, the same practice method will be used; you should focus on perfecting the first two notes, if they are sixteenth, before moving on to the next. If you have mastered much of a piece but are stuck on a specific section, you can use this method by focusing solely on that section. If you’re playing a multi-note chord or something else that requires the coordination of two hands, you can simplify things by focusing on the left hand (on a piano) and mastering the first two notes before moving on to the right. The first step is to figure out how to play the first two notes slowly and accurately.
All Music Methods LLC’s Chief Music Officer is Jeff Bollettino. In addition to its All Music Methods featuring Jamey Aebersold online music education emporium, the corporation runs several School of Rock franchisees in the Northern Virginia area.