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How to Practice Music: Practice Does Not Make Perfect

Feb. 13, 2017
Most music students don't realize that they can actually become a worse if they practice incorrectly. Learn to practice the right way.


Founder & CEO | Sage Music

Most music students don’t realize that they can actually become a worse if they practice incorrectly. Imagine the frustration you would feel practicing your instrument for hours and hours, months upon months only to be further away from your musical goals. This is why more than 60% of all music students quit just a few months after beginning according to a recent research funded by the Australian government.

How to Practice Music

Practice Does Not Make Perfect

What they say isn’t true,  Practice does not make perfect.  Even the esteemed Malcolm Gladwell misrepresented the idea of practice in his book The Tipping Point.  He discusses the 10,000 hours theory, which states that if you put in 10,000 hours of work or practice into your given field you will achieve mastery.

But that simply isn’t true.

In fact, you could potentially practice for 20,000 hours only to be left with confusion and error, having created habits of movement and thought that make you less effective than before. That would be roughly 4 hours of practice per day for 20 years. How would you feel after putting in those kinds of hours for little or no return?

The good news is that there is a way to practice 10,000 hours and guarantee your success in music, or in any other activity that you choose.  It’s very simple, actually. You just have to know how to use both your body and your mind the right way.  I learned quite a bit about how to do this when I was recovering from a brain injury I sustained in the Iraq war. Let me share some of these secrets with you now.

The Mind: Practicing with Intention

First, you have to practice with the correct frame of mind. Researchers in the field of human learning call this type of practice “Deliberate Practice”.  Deliberate practice is not just sitting down and repeating something until it gets better. That’s what most people suggest, but it can actually be quite destructive. Let me start with an easy example.

Imagine that you practice a song 99 times trying to make it perfect. Then on the 100th time, you play it perfectly.  Now imagine that you play this in front of an audience.  What do you think the likelihood of playing perfectly is? How confident will you feel?  Unfortunately, you probably won’t feel very good, or confident, or have a high chance of success.

Let’s imagine it differently now.  Imagine that you practice all of the right movements perfectly 99 times, even if it is very slow.  Then I put you in front of the audience to perform.  Don’t you think your odds of success are now greatly improved?  And your confidence, too, right?!

Deliberate Practice does require repeating certain movements like just described. But it also includes things like structure, goal setting, metacognition (thinking about your practicing), solid practice strategies, and maintaining accuracy.

So now let’s revise our question:  Assume you practice 10,000 hours like Gladwell suggests.  And you practice like the experts do with Deliberate Practice. Will you now achieve mastery?  It’s still a no, but we are getting closer! Next we must consider whether you are using your body in the most effective way possible. You could in fact use your mind properly but train some really bad movements.

The Body: Healthy, Efficient Movements

Secondly, you need to practice the right movements. It may seem silly to imagine, but think of kicking a soccer ball with only your heel.  Or swinging a golf club using only one hand.  You might become the best heel kicker or one armed club swinger, but are you really going to be a master? Will you really be great at what you do compared to others with better technique?  The point is that you can become expert in bad movements. Please don’t do that!

You have to use the best technique when you practice. This simply means using your body and instrument in the healthiest and most efficient ways possible.  What are these ways, do you ask?

While this might vary slightly from person and from instrument to instrument, there are several general rules of movement that apply to everyone. This is what the fields of biomechanics and kinesiology are all about. The magic is learning how to apply these rules to your given instrument, considering your body’s own size and shape. This is where a well trained and qualified music teacher is really handy.

Let’s revise our question once again.  Assume you now practice 10,000 hours, like Gladwell suggests.  And you practice like the experts do with Deliberate Practice. And you practice slowly, making only accurate repetitions of the most effective movements. Will you now achieve mastery? I guarantee that you will.

This is exactly why I have founded Sage Music, to help the many students here just like you who are looking for a better way to practice and learn music. It isn’t something that can be learned in a day, or by reading a single blog post. But it can be learned. And the sooner you start with this type of training that faster and more confidently you will achieve your musical goals.

Want to become an expert practicer? Try Sage Music Lessons.
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