Practice, pt. I

We’re going to think about something you’ve heard plenty about already, but I’ll do my best to put a different spin on it and perhaps help you understand it in a different way than you have in the past. It is the ever-present and ever-misunderstood concept of practice.

“You HAVE to practice!” is one of the most commonly uttered phrases from the mouth of just about every music teacher on the planet, intoned with varying degrees of kindness or exasperation depending on their personality, mood, and the degree of stubbornness with which a given student might ignore this responsibility.

Let me first clear up this statement a little bit by saying that you don’t HAVE to practice, which is probably obvious to most of you. You won’t die of lack of music practice (though some of us feel as though we might). It won’t affect the grand scheme of your life- you’ll have plenty of opportunities to live a fulfilling life and become more or less self-actualized. You might fail band, but failing a class isn’t the end of the world.

It’s more accurate (and important) to say that if you don’t practice, you probably won’t have very much fun with music. Think about it- if we’re both bad at something and have no sense that we’re improving, it’s very hard to enjoy ourselves.

Adding insult to injury, you’ll have a negative impact the experience of your bandmates. This is kind of unique to music- someone in the next row over failing a math test doesn’t affect your experience of math class much, but the person behind you playing out of tune in band can really mess up your day (or month, if they do it with enough consistency).

So, skimping on practice is likely to rob your musical experience of almost any pleasure that could be associated with playing your instrument- both on intra- and interpersonal fronts.

If that’s understood, only two options really make sense- either develop a habit of practicing, or quit and pursue other interests. Really consider the second option! If you aren’t willing to put in around 20 minutes a day outside class, you are probably not going to contribute or gain much from being involved in music. There’s no shame in admitting that some things are not for you at this moment in your life.

Now, onto the other misunderstanding, and this is the big one. What constitutes practice? I could easily write a whole book on this (and others already have) but because I know you’re all busy, I’ll keep it brief by outlining a general principle of how your brain works.

Think about learning for a second. What does it mean to have learned something? One way of putting it is that concepts and facts you’ve studied can be easily recalled from memory (say, to write an essay on an AP test, or to hit a jump shot). This is an oversimplification, but it’s not a huge stretch to say that a great deal of learning within any discipline involves a considerable amount of memorization- and this  goes double for physical disciplines like music and sports, where no amount of explanation can make you completely understand how to shoot a free throw or play a certain passage. Your body has to remember patterns of movement- “muscle memory.”

Most of us practice by saying “I’m going to work on this note, this passage, this phrase, so and so many times, until I get it right.” As it turns out, this is no way to remember anything. Repetition does not help encode memories. It’s spaced repetition that does the job. Memories become stronger when we attempt to retrieve them. In other words, the way to learn most anything is to get it, then let yourself forget, then remember. At first, you’ll struggle, but it will get easier and easier each day.

This, among other reasons, is why shorter daily practice periods (or multiple short practice periods in the same day, if you’re practicing a lot) are far more effective (especially for the less experienced among you) than longer sessions on one day. It’s the spaced-out attempts to retrieve patterns of thought and movement that have faded from conscious, short-term memory that ingrains those patterns deep into your mind and body, freeing you to think more conceptually about music rather than worrying about note accuracy, articulation, and intonation. Playing is exponentially more fun when you reach that stage.

For those of you who already practice consistently, but have been hitting a wall, understanding this feature of the brain could point to path forward. For those of you who think they can get away without practicing and somehow learn to play, this should be a reality check. For those of you who are loathe to practice for fear that you might not get better, you’re probably scared of nothing- but there’s only one way to find out for sure! I cannot recommend any less than five days a week of practice, even for people who aren’t terribly serious. It’s the only way to find out what kind of musician you might be.

In the future, I’ll go over more ways to make the most of your practice time and enjoy yourself playing music, but I want to make sure that this makes sense first, because if this doesn’t stick, nothing that I or anyone else can tell you will really matter much at all- without practice, we’ll go nowhere fast.

Do you have questions? Concerns? Fire away! Comment or email me at

And if the little tidbit about the way in which we learn was of interest to you or you wonder if I’m just making stuff up, I pulled it from this book about cognitive science.

See you all next time!



Leave a Reply