It seems there is a secret that is right in front of our noses. It is the secret of effective practice.
How I Learned The Secret of Effective Practice
When I was a young college student at NYU
in a double major program of music education and jazz performance on guitar, I spent many hours on the 9th floor of the old SEHNAP building. It was called SEHNAP at the time because of the crazy acronym for a school that just seemed to be thrown together: the School of Health, Nursing and Arts Professions. Today it’s called the Steinhardt building after a patron.
The 9th Floor
Anyway, the 9th floor was where the practice rooms were. These were small rooms with upright pianos and a small double pane glass window to peek in or out. There was just barely enough room for one person to sit and practice at the piano, or stand and play sax or violin or any other instrument with a single music stand. The rooms were soundproof which also meant they were pretty air tight. After spending an hour or more in a room, you would start to feel the stuffiness of low oxygen and the heat of your own breath filling the room and you had to take a break for risk of fainting! And yet, these rooms were packed most of the week. Weekends, you could possibly find a room when lunch rolled around. But these rooms were coveted. It was where all the work happened.
Jazz players call this woodshedding and it involved a story of Charlie Parker (or maybe some other jazz legend) hiding out in a woodshed to practice for hours and hours a day. In fact practice became known as “woodshedding” or “shedding” for short. I figure I spent my first two years of college “shedding” anywhere from 2 to 4 hours a day. This was less than in high school when there was really nothing else to do and I could spend up to 9 hours a day practicing. But it wasn’t all that productive. A lot of it was just repeatedly playing the same songs and licks and exercises over and over again with marginal improvement.
It was on one of these long shedding days on the 9th floor when Victor, a guitar player of amazing abilities and in his 3rd year, came stumbling out of a practice room with a euphoric look on his face. A bunch of us were taking a break from practice sitting on the floor near the elevators and we looked up expectantly.
“I just realized the most amazing thing!”
Victor looked like he was high or something.
“What’s up Vic?” Ben called out.
“You don’t practice what you ALREADY know! You practice WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW!”
Victor stumbled back to his practice room and shut the door. The group of us on the floor just sat there like a bomb had gone off. In fact it was a bomb...in our minds. It blew away all the old conceptions of what practice was. It’s a moment I will never forget because it was like a complete shift in my thinking.
“You practice WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW!”
This is something that is hard for young students to realize on their own. Many of my lessons are spent actually in practice mode with them. I think of it like a soccer coach practicing goal kicks with my players. In fact, most kids playing soccer are not going to be practicing on their own, they are getting the practice with the coach.
Practicing In The Lesson
As a music teacher, it can be similar. Many students have poor practice skills or do not practice at home at all! The lessons then become about practicing and teaching them how to practice.
The biggest tip at improving is having the student work on the part that is giving them the most trouble, and repeat it several times.
Then, running the whole song becomes a much better experience. At home, the student is now able to enjoy creating these sounds because that trouble spot has been “smoothed over.”
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This is an excerpt from my book the Game of Practice. You can purchase it Amazon by clicking on the cover image below.