In an interview recently, I was asked this question: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given about music? my life flashed before my eyes, and I felt very much put on the spot, but then the answer came surprisingly easily. It was from my old mentor, Arthur Cunningham, who had taught a very large number of students over many years, and was among the wisest and most accomplished educators I’ve met.
He was Yoda.
His advice: “If you practice every day, you will improve!”
Simple, but profound, and this concept of valuing incremental progress finds its way into all walks of life, beyond music. If you exercise, you will gain strength. If you clean, your environment will become more pleasant. If you communicate, your projects will go more smoothly. If you are thoughtful and loving in your relationships, they will strengthen. Even if all you do is fifteen minutes per day.
Developing the habit of regular practice on your instrument is the most important factor in how you will improve over time. What practice means, though, varies between different people. This is a dangerous fact to drop, but I have known several world-class artists, playing in the world’s finest orchestras and with GRAMMY awards on their bookshelves, who have admitted to me that they seldom practice, in the traditional sense. No endless scales, no method books, no tedious drills. However, they do rehearse several times a week, if not every day.
So, they are getting the hours in a their instruments. And I suspect at the beginning of their careers, or as children, they did put in some time developing technique.
Building the initial momentum is the hardest part, so here are a few tips for getting the ball rolling.
1.Set a regular practice time, and defend it. If you know that every day you will practice at 7:30 AM, you will be there. Even if it’s just fifteen minutes, set a regular time. Hopefully, you can expand duration, as the habit develops. Expect that it will take two or three months to develop the habit. But at a point, if will feel stranger not to practice than to practice, like it feels weird for most of us to skip a day brushing our teeth. No, repeat after me: "Sorry, I can't do that then, I have to practice." That's how you defend this time, which is critical for your becoming a better musician and a happier person.
2.Play music, not just tedious drills. If it’s most enjoyable for you to play along with a recording, do that. As the saying goes, “Life is short; eat dessert first.” Ideally, you won’t only do that, but if that kind of lead is necessary to help you develop the habit of practice, go for it. And if you have an hour session, you’ll be able to get to the technique development dimensions too. Again, at first, the critical thing is to develop the habit of regular practice, perhaps more than specifically what you are practicing.
3.Vary how you spend your time. There are many things to learn about music besides simple technique: developing a sense of timing, memorizing tunes, understanding theory, creating tone, interpretation, listening to others, improvisation, and so on. You need it all, so don’t just practice the tedious dimensions of music making. Divide your practice into different dimensions: repertoire, technique, sight-reading, etc. Make every session interesting and fun—and relevant.
Keep your practice sessions fun and empowering, and help yourself look forward to them. The purpose of music is joy and enrichment of the soul, so make sure that you’re getting that first. Then, use the momentum you get from following the love of it to pull your technique along. As the habit takes hold, you can fine-tune what you do in order to optimize the productivity of this important time.