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Inside Music:
"Practice Approaches" (Part 1)
by Richard Middleton

First published in Victory Review, March 1999.

In the midst of family, work, and all the details of life, it can be hard to make time to practice music. We may put off practicing for long periods, hoping to "catch up" later. We may feel it's selfish to want to make music a priority. When we do practice, we may feel unfocused or unsure of what to work on, and the time quickly passes, leaving us frustrated. Judgments and shame may turn practice into an emotional trial we'd rather avoid.

I've certainly had these experiences, as have many other musicians, professionals and amateurs alike. For beginners (especially adults), such struggles can sap their enthusiasm and confidence until they become so discouraged that they give up. It's mostly for beginners that I offer the following ideas, but I hope others find them useful, too.

Play every day. Any amount of time is better than none. Even five minutes once a day is better than five hours once a week. If you play every day, you'll be more familiar and comfortable with your instrument, music will be a part of your daily life, and some days those five minutes will stretch into ten, or thirty, or more. As your skill and enjoyment grow, you'll devote more time to practicing. But even when there's only time to play one note, don't let it go. Before rushing off, play that one note with all your heart and attention. Play every day.

To that end, keep your instrument where you can play it when you get the urge. Don't keep it in the back of a closet. If you play an electric instrument, keep it and the amp plugged in and ready to go. Every time I walk by my piano it calls to me, and I often respond. Same with my guitar, which is always ready on its stand. Limited space, toddlers, pets, etc. may make leaving an instrument out inconvenient or risky. You could hang it on the wall. If you must keep it in a case, put it where you can see it.

Remember to let go sometimes and really play music, just for the pure experience of it. Explore and enjoy the sounds you can make on your instrument, whether they're "beautiful" or not. No pressure, no expectations, no goals. This, too, is practice, a kind of meditation.

When you practice to develop your skills, focus on specific tasks. Whether it's playing a specific guitar chord cleanly, sounding out a difficult rhythm, or singing a song in tune, define the task clearly. Break a longer or more complex task into smaller or simpler ones, mastering each one separately before putting them back together.

Practice new tasks slowly. Even if the music you're learning is meant to be fast, you must first play it accurately. Speed comes from accuracy, but accuracy never comes from speed. If there are "weak links" in your performance where you hesitate or stumble or don't play cleanly, slow it down further until you can play every part well. Chronic mistakes indicate that your body doesn't understand what it's being asked to do (or lacks the strength to do it). You must slow down so it can clearly "see" each move, each preparation, each effort required, so the neurons can "program" it all in. To do this, you may have to play much more slowly than you'd expect or want to. It may not seem like it at first, but this method is much more efficient than practicing at "normal" speed.

Another benefit of this approach is that you avoid practicing mistakes. If you practice too fast and always stall or stop or make an awkward move at some point, or you gloss/slop over more difficult passages, you are practicing that incorrect way of playing, and you may unintentionally learn it as a part of the music, a "bug in the program" that could reappear any time you play it.

A subtler form of unintentional learning has to do with emotions. Mistakes can lead to frustration, anger, negative self-talk, and other unwanted thoughts and feelings. These distort our perceptions and make us tense, causing further mistakes, and a defeating feedback loop is formed. Just as mistakes can be practiced and learned, so can our feelings about them, and about ourselves as musicians. We actually learn to feel inadequate or foolish or guilty or angry, perhaps more deeply than we learn even the music itself. Practice being patient and kind with yourself instead.

Play every day. Explore and play. Practice slowly and take your time. Don't practice mistakes or defeating emotions. Be good to yourself. Enjoy!

© Copyright 1999 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.

Richard Middleton is a musician, songwriter, producer, educator, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Rhythm Guitar Secrets" (Countersine), and his music writing has also appeared in Smithsonian magazine, Victory Review, and SingOut! magazine.

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