The Art of Effective Practice

Anyone who has learned to play a musical instrument knows that practice plays an important role in the learning process. Unfortunately, many musicians spend time practicing without having a full grasp on how to practice, let alone what to practice. In order for the practice sessions to be effective and improve skills, one must have a goal or vision to direct towards. Without goals, the process may seem not only overwhelming but unfruitful.

Before You Practice

In order to practice well, you must know what it is that you are working towards. You need to have a clear understanding of what a truly excellent player sounds like and looks like when they play. If a musician makes it look "easy" it's probably because they are relaxed and have total control of the instrument. Having this visual and aural picture will help you aim your study in the right direction. Make the most of every opportunity to see and hear great players perform live, or take advantage of the multitude of recorded materials (video, compact disc) that are available today.

Become aware of your immediate needs or weaknesses. Is it your overall technique, sound, reading, dexterity or facility? Perhaps you are limited in your grooves, beats, fills, solo ideas, time keeping or basic musicianship? Whatever it is (and we all have something to work on), begin focusing on these areas of greatest need. If you're not exactly sure what it is you need to work on, ask a private instructor, fellow musician or band-mate. I have found that video taping (or recording) myself playing has greatly helped in my goal setting. My areas of weakness always seem to reveal themselves just by watching and listening to myself play.

With some basic goals in mind, you will begin to practice more effectively and see a tremendous growth in your playing.

Setting Goals

Many people talk about it, but rarely reach the mark; why is that? I believe it comes from setting unrealistic goals. Consider the following three scenarios:

  • You want to learn a new funk groove that you heard on the radio. You sit down and immediately start trying to work it out. You suddenly realize that the technique required to play this groove is currently beyond your grasp; so you give up for the day and just "jam." Several days later, you decide to practice again and find that not only do you still lack the technique and coordination needed to play the funk groove, but you've forgotten exactly how it goes; so you just "jam."
  • You saw someone play this cool hand drum the other day and you want to learn to play it. You rush out and buy the drum, bring it home, and don't know what to do next. Every week or so you pull the drum out and tap around on it; then you put it away again. As the days and weeks roll by, you figure that you should put the "cool looking drum" to use, so you use it as a coffee table or lamp stand in your living room.
  • You've been playing drums for about 4 years and feel good about yourself. In fact, you tell everyone that you liken your drumming to the styles of Neil Peart and Terry Bozzio. One day a fellow musician (band member, or director) bursts your bubble by telling you that you don't have a good grasp of the rudiments and need to take some drum lessons. You find a local teacher and immediately try to "wow" him by playing "your version" of a Double Stroke Roll. The teacher quickly points out that your strokes are not even (in fact, they sound like lawn mower with water in the tank). Despite the encouragement of your new teacher, you have determined that he doesn't know what he is talking about. You go home and play your double strokes as fast as possible, feeling that they sound good to you . . . at least, when you play them really fast!

These three examples are true stories; do they sound familiar? There are many issues that need to be dealt with in these scenarios, but can you see a common thread? This type of thing happens every day (unfortunately) but it doesn't have to!

What Needs to Happen:

Once you determine the "big picture" goal (like learning a beat, an instrument, etc.), you need to place it in a time frame. Your level of ability as well as the degree of difficulty of the goal will help determine the length of time needed to complete your objective. If I wanted to learn to play Tabla, but have no hand drum experience, it would be unrealistic for me to plan on learning Tabla (which by the way is truly a life long goal) in just a few days. Give yourself some time! Set a goal like: "by the end of the year, I want to know the basic techniques and strokes for Tabla. I'd also like to be able to play several cool grooves." That's a realistic goal.

After you determine the goal, break it down into "bite size pieces."

You might have a goal to eat a hamburger, but you don't just shove the thing down your throat in one enormous bite do you! How healthy is that? By taking small bites from the goal, chewing, then swallowing, you slowly devour your goal. Savor each bite and enjoy the process! If you don't take small bites, your goal will appear too big to handle and it will just sit there.

In regards to learning Tabla... my goal was set for the year. Now I need to break this large one year goal into smaller monthly goals — monthly goals into weekly goals — weekly goals into daily goals. By taking a goal and breaking it into smaller manageable pieces, you will experience and realize success.

How Much You Should Practice

In order to have a effective practice session, you will need to practice on a regular basis. Of course you can practice as often as you like, but you need to establish a set amount of time every day (5-6 days a week) in which to practice. If possible, find a time during the day (or night) that you can always practice; preferably the same time every day. Mark this time down on your calendar and make every effort to stick to your schedule.