Comparison is the single most effective direct practice strategy you can use. In its most basic form, comparison practice is simply modeling your playing after a better player, such as a private teacher or a professional.
In middle school, I changed schools in the middle of the year. When I started band at my new school, my band teacher Mr. McBrien put me between the last two trumpet players and told me I could challenge my way up the section, which had ten players. It was a new experience for me, because I had never had many other trumpet players around—when I started playing in fifth grade, there were five of us, but for the next two years I was the only trumpet player in the band, and I didn’t improve much, even though I was practicing often. When I started at my new school, I started copying the people around me without realizing it. I absorbed everything, from how I sat and held my horn to the tone quality and articulations they were using. Each time I challenged someone and moved up a chair, it was like I unlocked a whole new set of skills to learn. When I hit second chair, my parents decided to get me a private teacher, and I improved even faster.
But I was barely practicing at all (Don’t tell my teachers!). That’s the power of good modeling—it skips past our conscious mind and goes directly to the subconscious, where we can process much more information and put it to use more quickly.
From a teaching standpoint, modeling is the quickest way to impart a large volume and depth of knowledge. As a high school music teacher, I usually demonstrated before I would explain what I was looking for. Sometimes I’d even skip the explanation altogether and demonstrate again, just to get them to listen more carefully. It took half the time and created much better results. From a learning standpoint, then, the best thing we can do for ourselves is find great teachers to model specific skills for us.
Admittedly, this gets harder as we get older and more skilled. The better you get, the fewer teachers there are who are better than you, and those few teachers tend to be in high demand and busy with their own performance schedules.
So what can we do?
Luckily, we live in an age where video and audio recordings of some of the best musicians in the world are readily available. Not only that, but we can usually find a recording of someone playing the exact music we’re working on.
Here are three ways to use comparison practice with a teacher or a recording:
Just try to copy the recording or your teacher as carefully as you can, one small section at a time. This is especially helpful for beginners and intermediate players developing tone quality, articulation, phrasing, and tempo. Stronger players can use it to develop greater nuance and sensitivity.
Make decisions about the music before you listen, then compare your decisions with your teacher or a recording of choice. When you find a difference, try to figure out why the performer made a different choice. If you’re doing this with a teacher, check and see if you’re right. Especially focus on important decision points, such as transitions, dynamic shifts, beginnings, and endings.
Record and Compare
Record yourself playing the passage or phrase, then compare it to a recording of a professional. This allows you to focus on listening, rather than on performing. You’ll almost certainly hear differences that you wouldn’t have heard in direct mimicry.
Listen to two or more professional recordings of the same piece. Where are they similar? Where are they different? Which do you prefer? Why? You’ll gain a ton of information from this approach.
Comparison is the quickest path to improvement, and yet most of us only use it passively: we soak up information from masterclasses and gain great insights during our private lessons, but then we spend days and even weeks focused on making small improvements in the practice room. When we take a more active approach and start to include the use of recordings in our practice sessions, we can start to make new breakthroughs every day.