Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Efficient practice method

        People who study music, including myself, desire to be great musicians and performers but as we may know, becoming virtuosi is not easy; in fact, only few can reach to that level. However, to achieve our goal or dream, we, musicians, practice every day over and over since we all heard of ‘Practice makes perfect!’ Unfortunately, this theory does not work to become a perfect player; then what is the problem? In Robert Jourdain’s book, Music, The brain and Ecstasy, in ‘to performance’ section, he stated, “Researchers have found marked differences between the practice styles of amateurs and virtuosi”(Jourdain, 233) meaning that although practicing hard may be one of important components, how to practice efficiently is the main key to success. This paper will demonstrate the efficient practice method to become a great performer.

            Firstly, in Jourdain’s book, he compared the practice styles of amateurs and virtuosi; amateurs usually just like to play long passages straight through, but when they have some faulty notes, they stop and repeat several times. In other hands, virtuosi only concentrate on fragments rather than playing the entire piece and they correct the faulty notes by playing them in the context of a larger phrase. Since virtuosi understand that the bad notes are from in the motions for the notes around it, “they correct wrong notes by working on the relations between notes, by working on the relations between notes, by reorganizing the deeper levels in the motor and conceptual hierarchies from which the notes arise.”(Jourdain, 233) In addition, repeating same mistakes over and over is very fatal which means before our muscle memorized the wrong motions, we have to practice just that fragments to make it perfect. From my own experience, practicing on the specific fragments that I made mistake to make it perfect, is one of the hardest part of my practice session; it requires much endeavor and patience. It also relates to habit that some people, including myself, just skip thru mistakes after few trials hoping that they will get it right next time.

           Furthermore, there is “a strong correlation between quality of performance and amount of practice” (Jourdain, 233) which indicates that the quantity of practice is also important. As we can see, the top performers or at least better performers than us, usually practice constantly everyday with right method and spends more practicing time than us. For example, the world renowned violinist, Jascha Heifetz said that he had played the violin for 100,000 hours, roughly an eight-hour day six days per week from early childhood. On the contrary, some people like Paganini and Liszt, they only practiced incessantly in earlier age and hardly at all later which may view as the quantity and quality of practice is crucial especially in early age. Of course, there are advantages for people who are born with ‘talent’ and learned instrument in earlier age to become virtuosi but I insist that with efficient practice method and effort for a long term period also can lead to virtuosic level for those who are not born with it.

            Moreover, the study Learning strategies in instrumental music practice by Siw G.Nielsen, the author lays out a primary strategies in practice. The first step is strategies to select relevant parts of learning material: a visual examination of the score, playing through larger section in a tempo close to final tempo. Second step is strategies to organize and to form relation in the learning material which includes repeating parts in different segments, repeating segments in different tempi using the metronome, using combinations of strategies in sequence and dividing the piece into ‘working areas’ that are focused separately. Lastly, strategies to relate the learning material to existing knowledge: playing segments along with a vocal expression and listening to others’ performance and recording. Personally, idea of working with metronome is the most important strategy, especially in early stage of learning a new piece: setting up the tempo really slow to make it perfect and gradually increasing speed to achieve final tempo. For contemporary piece, since there are many complex rhythms, harmonies, and techniques, using metronome is mandatory. In the past, I had many troubles in piece just because I did not work with metronome and as some people may experience, sometimes, we are too lazy to work with metronome.

            Lastly, according to study, Self-regulating learning strategies in instrumental music practice by Siw Nielsen, self-evaluation, setting of specific goals, strategic planning, self-instruction, and self-monitoring help students to enable to optimise their learning and performances, taking into account interpersonal, contextual and interpersonal conditions. Interestingly, in this study, verbal techniques might prove valuable. For example, the student might be taught to ask and answer questions such as: ‘What is my problem?’, ‘How can I solve it?’ ‘How am I doing?’ during practice. “These questions probably have the effect of increasing the students’ metacognitive awareness of the demands of a problem and the specific strategic effort that is well matched to it. The implication is that to promote skilful self-regulatory learning teachers must support students to learn how to orchestrate their strategic activities reflectively, in the face of fluctuating problems” (Butler, 1998).

            In conclusion, it would be great if you can ask yourself, ‘how efficient practice am I doing?’ The amount of practicing time may important but the efficiency and quality of practice is the main key. Of course, it would be hard to follow every single method and strategies; however, we may pick up some of points where we need to improve on and put them into action. At first, due to our old habits, we may struggle but once we get used to these great principles, we can achieve to certain high-level performer later on. Rather than blaming oneself about talent issue, working hard in right ways with endeavor and patience will lead us to great musicians.


BUTLER, D.L. (1998) A strategic content learning approach to promoting self-regulate d learning by students with learning disabilities , in: D.H. SCHUNCK & B.J. ZIMMERMAN (Eds) Self-regulated Learning. From Teaching to Self-reflective Practice (New York, The Guilford Press).

Jourdain, R. (1997). Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination. HarperCollins.

Siw Nielsen (2001) Self-regulating Learning Strategies in Instrumental Music Practice, Music Education Research, 3:2, 155-167, DOI: 10.1080/14613800120089223

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