Practice Makes Better

Practice Makes Better

Both students and parents of students often ask me “how much should I/he/she practice?”. My answer is usually “daily”. As far as how long I often say “5 minutes is better than nothing but at least 20 minutes is really required to make significant progress”. That is the absolute shortest answer but here’s a little bit more insight…

First of all- why do you play music? Probably not just for the sake of spending time practicing. I was inspired to play music by the music that I heard. As a guitar player hearing Aerosmith, KISS, Van Halen, Ozzy Osbourne, Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix and so forth as a kid I was inspired to be able to play THAT music. As a bass player hearing the great basslines of 70’s funk and hip hop as well as players like Stanley Clarke, Jaco Pastorius, Jimmy Johnson, Percy Jones, Billy Sheehan, Jonas Hellborg, Marcus Miller and many others inspired me to want to play THAT kind of music.

So with inspiration in heart and mind I set about the task of actually learning and mastering my favorite guitar and bass parts. I voluntarily spent many, many hours learning and mastering the material that inspired me to want to play. Once I started playing in bands I started learning and mastering material for the purpose of performing live and getting paid. (meaning that I learned material that was a bit less than inspiring for the purpose of entertaining an audience)

As a student in middle school and high school I would often practice 4-8 hours a day but at the very least and hour or two. The luxury of youth allows us more time, energy and fewer life distractions to pursue our interests. As a young adult playing music full time, gigging, touring, etc. I would sometimes practice up to 12 hours a day. Again- I was inspired by the music that I wanted to learn, master and create so I never needed encouragement to spend the time necessary to improve my skills.

As an adult and full-time musician I still spend days playing from 8-14 hours a day between learning material, writing and producing material, performing and rehearsing. In order to play at a high level you really need to play everyday and always be learning and creating to make progress.

I don’t expect most people- including my students- to spend the amount of time and energy on playing that I have and still do. However, if you want to make significant progress with your playing here are a few helpful tips for you that I have learned over the years.

  • Practice and play daily- even if it’s only for a few minutes.
  • Have a purpose when you practice. Learn new songs, new riffs, new scales, improve your time, etc. Your purpose doesn’t only help you to improve but also gives you a reason to play.
  • Spend time to just play for fun. No structure- no expectations. Just enjoy playing for a few minutes.
  • Learn your scales, position, chords and basic music theory. The better you understand what you’re playing the easier it is master it.
  • Practice with a metronome and/or time-keeping device. Download a drum machine app, but a drum machine, play along to jam tracks, play along with your favorite songs, etc.
  • Music is composed of notes and rhythms. Don’t neglect either one or your playing will not sound musical.
  • Keep a practice log to keep track of what you’re trying to accomplish and to track your progress.
  • Make sure that you take time to listen to music that inspires you. As you improve you will find that the music that you listen to will have a great bearing on what your playing sounds like.
  • If at all possible leave your instrument out in a conspicuous place. Allow yourself to just pick it up sometimes and play- if only for a moment. Leaving your instrument in its case in the closet often makes playing “out of sight- out of mind”.
  • Go see live music whenever you can. Especially concerts by nationally-recognized artists. There is no comparison to seeing your heroes play their music right in front of you!
  • Support local music, too. Become acquainted with local groups and musicians. One of the pleasures of playing music is playing with other musicians whether it be as a duo, trio, full band or orchestra. Be open to checking out and playing with players that play a variety of styles of music- not just your favorite style.
  • Our favorites change as time goes by and as we progress and mature. Always be open to hearing new music regardless of the genre.
  • Learn to respect all artists in all genres. You may not particularly care for what they play but you should learn to appreciate the time and effort that they have put into being musical artists and the fact that other people may really like what they do.
  • Musical progress is not unlike diet and exercise. We are living organisms and we can progress at a predictable rate. The more time and effort that you put in the more you’re going to get out of it. Especially if you learn to be efficient in your efforts.
  • Don’t compare yourself to others. Work to be the best musician and artist that YOU can be. Playing music is not a competition- it’s an artistic endeavor. Strive to do your best to express ourselves as artists and individuals. Along the way we absorb the sounds that we’re exposed to and express them in our own special way.
  • Use a binder to keep all of your random music stuff together. Staying organized really helps. (your teacher will appreciate it- too!)
  • Take lessons. Ask questions.
  • Learn to read music.
  • Learn to play “by ear”.
  • Relax. Tension is the enemy of playing with fluidity. If something hurts- stop. You may just be trying to hard. Take a deep breath, slow down and try again.
  • Never give up.

I hope some of these ideas help you on your path to being a better musician. “Talent” is a blessing but hard, consistent and smart work is what makes good musicians. Good luck!!!