On deliberate, careful practice

This is about what practicing looks like. Practicing isn’t just sitting down and doing. It’s a very different mental state and, I believe, is the difference between people who learn a little and people who are able to master something.

I studied music at university. I went there thinking that the piano would be my instrument, but discovered computers and over about 18 months more or less stopped playing. That was 15 year ago.

Over that 15 years, I’ve hardly played at all compared to the 8 or more hours I would eek out of every day when i was a teenager, and played and jazz sessions near where I lived just to keep myself sharp. I’m no longer as sharp as I was, but I’ve started playing again.

I started by just fooling around again, playing things I used to play but quickly got bored. It took a while to remember what I filled up those 8 hours a day with and how I didn’t get board so over the past few weeks I’ve practiced more and today had a really good session. Not fooling around, but practicing.

I made some observations on the technique, progress and my mental state when practicing. These definitely apply to other areas and at some point I’m going to add to my anecdotes some background reading, but for now it’s important I just practice.

  1. Pay attention. Listen and learn what works and what doesn’t. It’s too easy to fill up time appearing to practice without actually learning about what’s going on in the sound, in your muscles, in your reaction to the music.
  2. Do not encourage muscle memory.
  3. Pay attention to the keys, the fingers and the sound. How they move together. Don’t just play the notes, notice the synchronisity of the notes in chords and notice where that comes from. Which muscles?
  4. Move around. Maybe sitting differently works better?
  5. Repeat difficult passages many times, but not just doing it by rote. Repeat them and observe where the difficulty is. It isn’t likely to be the whole passage. Break it down.
  6. Listen to your body. Where is the tension and why?
  7. Exercise (as in physical training/gym/swimming etc) for strength of control and flexibility. Any weakness in your core, legs and arms restricts movement. This limits finger control, which affects dynamic range and the details.
  8. Don’t use the pedal or reverb (I’m on digital) when learning. Get the notes right and exactly on time before you muddy the sound.
  9. Know the structure of the piece. Use this to inform the order you learn and practice.
  10. Leave deep interpretation until you’ve learnt the notes. But understand the relationships in notes as you go.
  11. Use theory (music, acoustic, psychoacoustic) to inform the structure of your practice and your interpretation of the piece
  12. Play very very very slowly. (Not necessarily at first, but early on). Hear _every_ note.

When you sit down:

  1. Go straight in. Play. Now.
  2. Don’t got further than you can learn or keep in your head. Go back. Do it again.
  3. Expect to be a bit bored
  4. Don’t expect to be excited
  5. Be interested. Meditate on the sounds and sensations with focused curiosity. You are learning how all this sound works together.
  6. Nothing you do is wrong except: stopping.

The aim of each session of practice is to learn something new, not necessarily “the notes” but more about the structure of the piece, your ability (and current limits of it) and the sensation of playing.

The aim of practice is not to perform.

And a bonus one:

Practicing after even a tiny bit of booze makes the whole thing pointless. You just can’t observe as well.