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Effective practice

As a musician, I began to watch the different ways that people practice music. I noticed a pattern there, and started seeing the same pattern whenever people practice.

Our psychology makes it very easy to slip into practice ineffectively. On the other hand, simply understanding what and why makes it easy for you to have really effective practice.

It's the difference between mastering something versus just wasting your time. And you can boil it down to just one simple rule.

A typical practice session

A typical practice session for a choir might look something like this: after the choir assembles and calms down, the director gets everyone's attention. "Let's work on our Easter piece," he says, and everyone pulls out the music. He signals the pianist who starts at the beginning. They go through the piece to the end. The director asks, "okay, any problems anywhere?" A tenor speaks up about a phrase near the middle of the piece. The pianist plays the notes in question, then the director signals for a pick-up a few measures early for everyone to come in. The tenors missed it, so he directs them back to the pick-up. This time, they got it. The choir continues on to the end of the piece, at which point a soprano asks for help. They review the section, then practice from there to the end.

Once nobody calls out for anything in particular, the director will say, "let's take it from the beginning." After finishing the piece again, there's still time, so they "take it from the beginning" again. And again. And again.

What's wrong with that?

If you've been in any sort of group event that requires practice, chances are that you've had practice sessions that look like that. The choir hit a bad note; they fix it, then continue to practice, from there to the end. A basketball player makes a bad shot; the coach gives him ball again, he throws the shot a few times, then everyone continues as they were.

Our psychology works against us. We want to feel comfortable in the moment. We start the music at the beginning, because it's a comfortable place to start. Once we review a difficult session, we, by default, simply continue on, because it's comfortable. When nobody calls out for any particular help, we just do the whole thing over again, because it's comfortable.

And it's an absolute waste of time.

The right way to practice

We make quick progress when we get in a zone called the performance zone. It sits right between "comfort" and "stress". We need to move beyond what we're already comfortable with, but stay within the realm of what we think we can achieve with a reasonable effort.

When we practice, we should focus on a difficult part that feels within our grasp. Hit it over and over again quickly. Don't start at the beginning and come to it; don't continue on the end. Just hit the hard part, over and over.

Once you start to feel comfortable with that, stop.

Don't simply continue on to the end.

Find the next hard part, and hit that over and over.

And so on.

Bookends

The choir director in our example did two things right, or mostly right. It's good to start with an overview. The purpose is to identify at the start of the session where the hard parts are. Once that's done, the focus can be on perfecting them.

The second thing he did right was to end with a review. But end with just one review. The review gives us a chance to see our progress compared to the beginning of the session, and to see it in context of the whole. It gives us a good, positive feeling, right now, but also trains us to feel good about the next practice.

In summary

If you want to boil this down to one simple rule, it would be:

  • Focus on the difficult parts!

But I'd also add in:

  • Get an overview at the beginning to know which parts are the difficult ones.
  • Review at the end to see your progress.

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