Practice vs Learning

Practice, Practice, Practice!!

The monkey on all musicians backs. We think about it all the time, worry that we don’t do it enough, and get yelled at by our mom (or bandmates) when we don’t do it at all. And for good reason. Without practice we would just be another person with an instrument collecting dust in our closet.

But what is practice? And is that what we should call all the time we spend working on our instruments?

The short answer is no. The long answer is . . . .

Practice is the act of going over material that one has already learned in order to make it better and more musical. Learning is the time spent figuring out what to practice in the first place.

The traditional use of the term practice is a catch all for time spent working on one’s instrument. And that’s fine (I use it that way too!). But what is important for the student to understand is that the real work happens once a song or scale or phrase etc is learned. It may take quite a bit of work and several “practice” sessions before this happens but in the early stages we are still learning the material. Once it is learned we can roll up our sleeves and get down to the hard (but fun!) work of making it sound like music via practice.

So often I will work with a student that is trying to get a phrase understood and we spend almost an entire lesson before they can play it. Then when I ask them to play it a few times in a row they often can’t do it. Why? Because they haven’t fully learned it yet! Another example is when a student is struggling with the overall piece they are working on and I start to ask questions about the individual components such as melody, harmony, rhythms and so on and the student can’t isolate these individual parts. Why? Because they haven’t learned them yet.

How do you know if you’ve learned it enough to practice it? A good indication is when you understand the song or piece from beginning to end and more or less have it under you fingers but can’t quite make it thorough at an even tempo. If you can do all that then it’s a matter of connecting the dots and getting everything flowing. Once that is happening it is simply a matter of . . . PRACTICE! This is when repetition really makes a difference.

Here’s my running analogy: If you’re about to jump out of a plane and the person that packed your parachute tells you that they’ve only successfully packed 2 out of 5 parachutes would you jump? Of course not! Because this person hasn’t really learned to pack chutes!

During our “practice” time we may not differentiate between learning and practicing but when we assess our progress and look for ways to improve the answers often lie in this differentiation. But it doesn’t matter what you call it. The goal should always be to learn what you want to play and then practice it. And just because you have learned it doesn’t mean it will sound fantastic and be played consistently. Actually it rarely does. It means you can focus on the important aspect of developing something in a musical way, beyond the nuts and bolts of where to put you fingers and what note or chord to play next. In other words it’s time to PRACTICE!!!