How to Practice

Highly gifted musicians appear to be capable of magic and carry an aura of supernaturally acquired ability, which appears to be attained without any practice whatsoever.  Furthermore, laypeople love to believe in magic when it comes to describing the super-talented. It doesn’t take much to propagate such a myth as a particular musician having “a naturally acquired super-talent” (and the musician in question is not strongly incented to admit to the hard work it took to get her there).

We have all heard the stories: “Jim is a natural, he doesn’t practice and yet he is 10X better than me!”  “Mary was born playing music, she has never practiced in her life!”  “Albert has never had any lessons, and doesn’t practice, but he was just picked up by a national band!”

These are all lies!

10,000 Hours of Practice?  Really?

Each and every highly proficient and accomplished musician has put in thousands of hours in.  Sometime during their life, this has happened.  In some cases, this has occurred very early in life, other times later.  Most pros have a practice regimen they stick to religiously (others not so much and you can tell the difference!).

Malcolm Gladwell has famously written that any learner of a complex skill, such as mastering a musical instrument, requires 10,000 hours of practice in order to be proficient.  My experience pretty much matches that.  I have seen people – especially youngsters – do amazing things with only a few hours of experience on an instrument but truly mastering the instrument, even for the young, will require much more time and lots and lots of practice.

My personal experience is that it takes about five years before getting really comfortable with a new instrument, and at least 10 years to become a virtuoso. And if you do the math: multiplying… 20 hrs. per week times 52 weeks per year times 10 years = ~ 10,000 hours.

Of course, you can and should be playing at a reasonably proficient level in a much shorter amount of time.   For many people this can happen with just a few months of deliberate practice.  In fact, once you have the motor skills to operate your newly acquired instrument at reasonable tempos, you should be out there jamming with others.  This will significantly shorten your learning curve.

Deliberate Practice vs. Noodling

Not all practices are created equal.  The way you approach practices makes a huge difference.  Practicing (to acquire any complex skill) is a subject of active research and several scholars (Gladwell, Coyle, Ericsson, Colvin) have described something called Deliberate Practice, which is a much more efficient and effective way to learn. 

Deliberate practice involves breaking down a complex skill (such as learning to play an instrument) into its basic parts and then focusing, thru deliberate exercises, on each of those parts.  For example, if you are brave enough to want to learn to play the fiddle, one of the parts you will need to work on would be bowing.  Bowing can, in turn, be broken down into bow holds, smooth movement of the right hand, getting absolute control over the force being applied to the string, and so forth.  The net result of deliberately practicing each of these component parts of bowing will be the ability to bow any note on any string with absolute control over volume and tone. Focusing on each of these elements with a series of deliberate practice sessions will yield results.  You can read much more on Deliberate Practice by picking up a book by one of the aforementioned researchers, or just by googling “deliberate practice.”  I strongly recommend you do so, it will turbo charge your learning curve. 

However, you will quickly find that deliberate practice is tiring, frustrating and can often be very boring.  So, I would suggest mixing up a typical practice session with some noodling.

What is noodling?  Well it might be just playing around with some interesting sounding licks, just for pleasure.   It might be playing a favorite fiddle tune a few times.   Noodling, while not at all productive in the “deliberate practice” sense, can be highly motivating and can increase your skill in other ways.  It can allow you to discover new things that can be further incorporated into your playing, and I believe it is also an essential component of practice. 

Learning Licks and Breaks Note-For-Note

One more essential component of practicing is learning from the giants that came before you.  Blatant copying here is encouraged; in fact, for each of the Bluegrass instruments, there is a corpus of licks and breaks that must be learned exactly and perfectly in order to be credible on your instrument as a professional. 

Learning and memorizing these important breaks and archetypal licks specific to your instrument by copying your musical heroes will pay tremendous benefits both short and long term.   Definitely reserve a portion of your practice time to do just that.

The Timing Trap

Similar to bad hygiene, bad timing will make you very unpopular with other musicians., Being the nice folks that bluegrass musicians typically are, they may be reluctant to point it out to you. One of the consequences might be the next time there is a good jam you might not get the call.  And if you end up practicing solely by yourself, you are very likely to fall further into the timing trap.

There are three things you can and must do to avoid the timing trap:  1) Always practice with a metronome (or drum machine), 2) record yourself often and listen back critically to your playing and 3) play music with other people as much as humanly possible.

The “Lag”

If you practice, you get better pretty much immediately, right?  Well, no, not in my experience.  Certainly, you can see signs of some improvement after an intense practice but for more significant improvements in skills to be noticeable, it takes a while.  We (adults especially) rely on a phenomenon called “neuro-plasticity” to encode our newly acquired skills into our brains.  And this involves physical changes in the brain: Not just the electrical transmission of neural impulses (as for normal thinking and learning processes), but the physical moving around and growing of stuff inside your head.  This takes time.  A long time.  More time than you’ll ever imagine. For me, it takes weeks, or maybe months.  I can literally stop practicing entirely, not even touch my instrument and still be showing significant improvement weeks (or even months) later when I pick up my instrument again. 

It is uncanny.  And until you realize what is happening it can totally demotivate you from practicing.   So be patient!  That lick you are working on today won’t actually sound very good for a few months.  But then, the lick will be a permanent part of your brain and you won’t even have to think about it to execute it.

Tools for Practicing

SLOW-DOWNERS

We have a huge advantage over previous generations of Bluegrass learners.  Most of the greats of the second-generation Bluegrass players (e.g. J.D. Crowe) had to try to figure out essential licks and techniques by watching first-generation performers in concert.   And the third generation (Ricky Skaggs, etc.) wore out the grooves of vinyl records from second-generation performers set on 16 speed trying to figure out licks (yes, I am of this generation).

Today, the fourth-generation of bluegrass pickers are armed with a personal computer or smart phones / tablets and programs are available that can pull critical information out of MP3 files on these devices with much less effort.  A slowing-down program can perform these functions for you and is absolutely essential. 

There are two good slow downer programs that I know of: Amazing Slow Downer and AnyTune.  They are available on both PCs and Macs as well as on iPhones, iPads and Android phones and tablets.  These programs allow the slowing of songs without changing pitch.  They also have loop functions and the ability to change the key of a song.  I don’t see why anyone would try to learn any instrument without access to these tools – they are extremely powerful and shortcut the learning process.  They also allow you to get the notes exactly correct – which was close to impossible with previous technology.

METRONOMES AND DRUM MACHINES

Yes, a metronome is essential.  There are good metronome programs on the PC / Mac as well as on smart phones and tablets.  There are also many drum machine programs available on these platforms as well.  Try a few out and see which one you like the best.  There are also very high-quality metronome hardware devices out there at very reasonable costs. I particularly like the BOSS DB90 Dr. Beat.  I strongly recommend plugging your metronome, hardware device or smartphone / tablet / PC into an amplified console or external speaker set – especially if your chosen instrument is the banjo.  You just simply can’t hear the beat loud enough and you will lose track if you don’t amplify it.  If you are living with someone else who doesn’t appreciate drum or metronome sounds, play it through a set of headphones. 

RECORDING TOOLS

Recording yourself and listening critically to yourself is an absolutely essential part of practicing.  If you are playing gigs, you should find a way to record each and every performance.  One convenient way I have found is to set up a smart phone in the audience with view of the stage and broadcast your show with Facebook Live.  You’d be surprised how many people will tune in and it will give you a permanent record of your show that you can listen to later.

Recording practices on a smart phone or a PC is an easy thing these days and can be done very conveniently.  There are also very high-quality and inexpensive stand-alone hardware devices that make great recordings too – my favorite is the Zoom H4N handheld recorder.  There are many choices out there, find one you like and use it.

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