Practicing Versus Playing

Hello again from Colin Berrido, the independent music teacher based in Bagshot, Surrey, England.

First of a Happy New Year to you all and I hope this will be a successful one for you.

As a Teacher the primary issue to helping students improve  crops up on a regular basis – that is the need to practice. One question I often get regularly asked is what is the difference between practicing versus playing as there is a lot of confusion between the two.

The way I lay this out to my students is by defining practice as the process of learning and improving your skill sets (such as learning chords, scales & arpeggios). Playing is the process were you apply these skills in a chosen piece of music – accompanying a song or perhaps applying the newly learned chords & scales in to a solo for example.

A key point for practicing is that you should always start with a given aim in mind such a learning the  2 octave A Pentatonic Scale. How long should you practice for? For beginners my advice is for a minimum of 20 minutes a day. For advancing students this of course needs to lengthen typically to one hour a day. Now for a lot students, who have other studies to cope with, this can be a challenge. One strategy I used to adopt was to start a particular homework topic and when I’d finished that I would take a 20 minute break by practicing a chosen topic. Then I’d go back to my other academic studies and later take another 20 minute practice break. This worked for me but may not work for everyone (“different stokes for different folks”).

For some students they prefer to make a dedicated single block of time for their practicing. If you opt for this approach there is a school of thought that you should break it into defined areas to focus on. A typical schedule might be – 20 minutes scales & arpeggios, 20 minutes chords and 20 minutes going over a study piece.  Another good tip I share with my folks is the “rule of 7” – which I got from a student who was a small arms instructor at Sandhurst Royal Military Academy. If you wish to develop muscle memory, simply repeat the process seven times. I was teaching a chap this morning who was having problems changing between a G chord and a D7 chord so I got him to play the change seven times with a single strum on each chords. Bingo! After the 7th run through there was a big improvement – not perfect but much better. My advice was that for the next couple of days to repeat this process daily as part of his practice routine.

One comment I often share is to warn students not to stay in the “world of practice” too long – this world can be a very negative place where we struggling to get our scale or practice piece right and often failing. The secret is to always start with something you can do well, move on to the “difficult” practice area and then finally finish on something you are good at. If you really find something difficult and frustrating take a break and return to it a little later – works for me! Never forget, no matter how experienced a player you are – we all have “bad” days and find some aspect of our practicing difficult at first. It’s normal.

Now the other question I get is: how long should I play for? My answer is simple – play for as long as you like! If practicing is a kin to cooking then playing is a kin to eating. In general it takes quite a time to cook a dinner, often hours, but only minutes to eat it. Likewise you will need to practice a piece many hours to be able to play a 3 or 4 minute performance. It all boils down to muscle memory and sadly there’s no fast way to short cut this process. I used to teach a student who went to school in South Africa and his Ruby Team Coach used to drill them over and over with set plays saying that “repetition was the mother of all skills”.

Keep in mind there are four things a musician needs to develop: Ears, Brain, Fingers and “Heart”. Now the first three are perfect candidates for a practice routine and learning to play from the “heart” only comes in your playing when you have developed these skills. I once saw a former All Ireland Junior Fiddle Champion play s slow air with such feeling that it brought tears into the eyes of many of the listeners – no words, just the power of beautiful soul felt music. A truly wonderful and amazing experience. How did he manage to do this? He started playing when he was around 3 years old and just kept practicing and practicing  until he didn’t have to look at or think about his hands and he was able to let his “heart” guide his playing. He was about 30 years old when I saw him play – he was a real inspiration to all who heard him.

So, set yourself a New Years Resolution to practice and play more this coming year but remember above all to enjoy your playing.