The Joy of Practice: Part 2 - Goals & Strategies

In part I of "The Practice of Practice”, I presented the importance of the relationship between your “teacher self” and “student self” and how great teachers model effective means of identifying issues and addressing ways toward improvement (with precision, compassion and patience). In part II, I’d like to discuss goals and strategies. It may sound funny, but in order to get the most out of any practice session, it is a really good idea to have a clearly defined goal or set of goals. “To become a great drummer” is not a clearly defined practice goal. It is a reasonable large goal, although it is a bit vague and subjective.

Until you have determined your goal, you cannot formulate a strategy. So, if your large goal is to be a great drummer, the next step will be to define what that means to you (what kind of drummer? what kind of drumming?) and formulate what skills and knowledge you will need to attain. As it turns out, there are many ingredients that go into a goal “cake”and it is impossible to know them all at the outset. Goals and strategies are fluent and dynamic and although you need to have them to get started, you can’t hold too tightly to them because they will naturally change as you go forward. Dogma and inflexibility are the enemy of growth, as things don’t seem to move along a straight line. Flexibility and adaptability are key to successful practice.

In any music lesson, (in which assignments have been given to practice technique as well as prepare a particular piece of music) a teacher’s role is to encourage, but also to pin point areas for improvement. For many students, this is a complex psychological process. Maybe it is human nature, or maybe it is in our culture, but we tend to want to hide, disguise or deny our weaknesses. We want to be seen as capable and without flaw. Does this serve us in our quest to improve? No! The more open you are to accepting that you have things to improve, the better. Here, a short term (or long) goal is generated by an observation of something that needs improvement. Now we can explore strategies. There are 3 basic principle strategies that I repeat to my students. These strategies can be applied to other disciplines (outside of music) and we’ll discuss those in a future installment of this blog series.

The 3 principles are:

1.Slow down. It’s funny that my students will often get incrementally faster each time they unsuccessfully play a particular passage. When we are nervous or get anxious about something, it tends to speed things up. Instead, we should continually slow things down until we are perfectly comfortable and have quieted ourselves. There is no tempo that is too slow. This allows the mind and body to relax and gives us ample opportunity to make observations and adjustments in our approach. When we are excited, we can think that we are going slower even when we are not. A metronome is a good objective gauge of what is really happening.

2. Count aloud. If you are not playing a wind or brass instrument, you can count aloud at all times when practicing. If you are playing a wind or brass instrument, you can certainly develop good counting (aloud) habits by working on aspects of your playing, away from the instrument (like working on rhythms by tapping them out). My first drum instructor, Casey Casino would simply not allow me to play anything without counting aloud. To this day (some 46 years later), I am grateful. Counting aloud provides an objective mirror or reference to the process. Sometimes my students swear that they are counting in their heads. When I ask them to count aloud, the count is jumbled and confused. Counting audibly lets you know what you are thinking (the same way that psychotherapy allows for the patient to know their thoughts through the process of speaking). Rhythmic solfeggio facilitates an understanding of what you will play, before you play it. In India, there is a strong tradition of reciting “Bols” or syllables that reflect both particular sounds/strokes on the Tabla and the exact rhythm. There is old adage that “if you can say it, you can play it”. In European musical training (practiced in conservatories around the world), solfeggio (expressing pitch and rhythm vocally) is a foundational skill.

3. The third of the 3 basic principles is the willingness to divide a challenge into parts. There are many different ways to do this. If you are performing a skill that requires your 4 limbs, as with the drum set or organ, you can practice the right hand or any single element separately or various combinations of the 4 parts. You can also focus on parts in a linear fashion (from left to right), practicing on the first few notes of a longer phrase, practicing a measure at a time or just extracting a difficult phrase from a piece. When my students are willing to go through the exercise of practicing the individual parts and then reassembling them, they invariably meet with expedited success.

In addition to these 3 basic strategies there are limitless ways to address challenges in practice and you must always be open to developing new ones. Very often, we get into a rut of attempting things repeatedly with the same approach, perspective and even expectations. What we need to do, in a conscious and measured way, is to change something. I find that these first 3 strategies will always work, but will often get the best results in combination with each other or an additional component that you may generate during practice.

In our next installment (space and time), we’ll discuss more specifics on establishing both the best physical and mental environments for effective and efficient practice.

Here are the highlights of the preceding material:

• Identify and embrace your weaknesses and don’t hide them, especially from yourself.

• Strengthen your weaknesses relentlessly: don't do what you know, do what you don't know.

• Something as simple as slowing down can make all of the difference in your quest to improve.

• Count aloud!

• Divide and conquer- take challenges on in pieces.

• Be creative, inventive and flexible about generating new strategies in the heat of practice. There are endless possibilities!

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