Direct Practice 1 & 2: How to Develop Your Consistency and Critical Skills

Direct practice is the what most of us think of when we think of practice.  It is, of course, only one of the three pillars that goes into making a master musician (the other two are Self-Management and Domain Knowledge).  If you aren’t already familiar with the three pillars, I recommend you start here.




Today we’re going to start drilling down into some specific strategies to use direct practice more efficiently.  Specifically, we’re going to talk about practicing for consistency and developing critical skills (later, we’ll talk about two other important forms of direct practice: conditioning and comparison).




To further define each of these:

Consistency practice is the practice of a specific musical line that you want to be able to perform accurately.  This will almost always involve your repertoire.




Critical skills practice has to do with recurring skills that show up regularly, such as scales, arpeggios, attacks, releases, dynamics, and a whole host of other technical skills.




One of the most common problems I see in younger players and singers is an almost exclusive focus on repertoire: consistency practice.  As players mature, they tend to spend more and more time on critical skills.  This can go too far, though, and suck the joy out of playing.  I try to aim for about 20% critical skills practice with younger players, eventually working up to no more than 50% for advanced players.  Advanced players should also focus on applying their critical skills to many wider contexts, such as etudes and sight-reading.




You will probably already be familiar with many of the following strategies, since they are so fundamental to what we do as musicians, but we often forget to make use of all our strategies, and there may be strategies here that you haven’t considered before, may be using incorrectly, or are applying haphazardly.  Use these strategies as a model for planning a focused, comprehensive practice session.




A couple key points before we get started. 


1)      Continuous attention is paramount.  Musical practice without attention is like target practice without aiming.  Focus.


2)     Every repetition has a lasting effect.  When you play a passage correctly, you make it more likely that you’ll play it correctly next time.  When you play it wrong, you make it more likely that you’ll play it wrong.  Don’t blindly swing at the piñata until you finally hit it; think of it more like putting: get the lay of the land, line up your shot, rehearse it mentally, see and feel it going in the hole, and only when you’re ready, carefully tap it in.




With those principles in mind, here are the strategies.






                    Work only on the area that is giving you difficulty.


                    Forwards chaining—on longer difficult passages, start by adding one note at a time to the end of what you can already play.


                    Backwards chaining—start with the last note and add one note to the beginning of your chain each time.


                    Zoom in/zoom out—Play the section, zoom in to work on problem areas, zoom back out and put the problem areas back in context, zoom back in to work on a different problem area, etc.




Slow it down:


                    Play several accurate repetitions at a slower tempo to build correct habits.


                    Use a metronome to preserve the underlying pulse and rhythm.


                    Gradually increase the speed.




Repeat it (a lot!)


                    Forwards chaining: start from the beginning of a difficult section, adding one note at a time until the chain is complete.


                    Backwards chaining: start from the end and add one note to the beginning each time.


                    Whole-part-whole: play the section, isolate and repeat trouble sections, then place them back in context.


                    Sing some of your repetitions to etch the musical line.


                    If you’re a brass player, buzz some repetitions to isolate the embouchure and air flow.


                    Mental practice, especially between other repetitions, helps strengthen neural pathways.




Keep Track


                    Keep track of your metronome markings and tuning tendencies.  That way you know where you left off and don’t waste time.


                    Notice and keep track of recurring errors and difficulties in musical excerpts and incorporate them into your skills practice.




Strengthen Neural Connections


                    Include expression and nuance in your direct practice; it increases the synaptic connections and makes learning more permanent.


                    Interspersing a skill throughout a session leads to twice as much retention as practicing the skill in one block.  This is counterintuitive and feels like you are making less progress, but the science shows a huge benefit to this strategy.  Try this arrangement of 3 skills: ABACBACBCACB


                    Try interspersing and adding “complications” (variations) to each new section:


A B A’ C B’ A’’ C’ B’’ C’’ A’’’ C’’’ B’’’ (A’=one variation on the first skill A, A’’=a second variation on the first skill)


                    Taking away one of your senses can help strengthen neural pathways: Play with your eyes closed.  Play with earplugs or a mute and focus on the sensations.






                    Take a pause between every rep (3-5 seconds is recommended) to evaluate and plan your next attempt—extra learning and improvement happens in the spaces.


                    Make use of 30-second stretch breaks and longer breaks away when needed, especially when you notice lower focus or higher stress.






As always, plan your practice in advance (a written plan is best, whether you use The Practice Habit, another journal, or just good-old-fashioned pencil and paper) and evaluate your progress after you’re finished.  You’ll quickly notice patterns and make faster improvements.  Happy Practicing!

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