Why Do We Practice?
When you ask this question, “Why do you practice?“, most musicians will respond “To get better.” I recently had an epiphany that questions this age old wisdom. After teaching music for over three decades and experiencing far too many students who practice a lot while making little to no progress, I have to question the truth of it. Do we really get better if we practice? And if not, what happens when we practice? And how do we make the progress we desire so much?
The answer to those questions hit me like a brick in the middle of a lesson. Actually, none of this was new to me, but to look at it in the context of why we practice, it adds an entirely new perspective to a lot of what I’ve been teaching over the past thirty years. This perspective gives me a different angle to share with the students to help motivate them to do a better job.
Answer Number One:
Practice does not make us better at what we do.
Instead, it makes what we practice more automatic. Now, I understand that many people believe that being more automatic means better. The problem occurs when what we practice isn’t better! Remember the students who practice a lot but never make any progress? Their musical performance was just as automatic as the worlds greatest musicians. Unfortunately, their automatic performance included all the mistakes that they practiced into the music. When this happens, there is no amount of practice which will make them perform at a higher quality level.
That’s something every musician must understand. You cannot perform at a higher quality level than what you practice. It doesn’t work that way. Our brains work much like modern computers and the old computer saying is just as true for our brains as it is for computers. “Garbage in, garbage out!” If you practice wrong notes and sloppy playing, your performance will include wrong notes and sloppy playing. You can’t muster enough will power to change that.
So the answer is, no, practice does not make you better at music.
Answer Number Two:
The only way to make progress in music is to raise your standards.
Of course we want to become more automatic and for that reason practice time is extremely important. But the only thing that makes us better musicians is when we hold ourselves to a higher standard. When you practice, you must listen to yourself with a critical ear. You must observe where the problems occur in your execution of the music and actively work at solving those problems. Without this, your practice time is basically a waste of time.
One of the things I teach you, as my student, is how to raise your standards. It’s not as simple as it seems. You cannot just say to yourself, “Okay, from now on I will have higher standards.” All that will do is frustrate you. Having higher standards is not an emotional thing. It’s not a pride thing. It is a practical process of growing your awareness of music. You cannot listen with a critical ear if you don’t know what to listen for. As my student, I help you grow that awareness in a way that is immediately applicable to your personal goals and desires.
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