It’s been said a trillion times, and for good reason: practice is absolutely essential for growth as a musician. You can never expect to grow if you don’t understand the value of a good practice session. Marathon runners exercise every day in order to be prepared to run those 26.2 miles. Musicians need daily practice as well as to ensure that they will perform their very best.
Music is a mental activity, but it also has a physical element that is often overlooked by younger musicians. The greatest players in the world have such highly developed muscle memory in their arms, hands, feet, wrists, fingers, mouths, etc. that they are able to focus much more on the music – their tone, tempo, dynamics, etc.
Muscle memory isn’t developed overnight. You need to spend enough time with your instrument that it becomes second nature. If you spend enough time with any tool it will gradually become easier to use. It’s been said that it takes 10,000 hours of focused practice to become an expert at something, and this is certainly true for musicians. After a while, you’ll notice that you can repeat melodies by ear, accurately reproduce sounds that were only in your head, and match pitches much easier than you could before you had logged a good amount of practice time. The goal is to get to a point where the instrument is an extension of yourself –where it’s no longer you vs. the instrument, but instead, one cohesive organism, both parts working perfectly together.
Here are three essential tips that can help you get the most out of your practice time, and help you to develop correct muscle memory:
- Use a metronome
I’m going to sound like your band director here, but this one thing is arguably the most important tip I can give: practice with a metronome! It doesn’t have to be so loud and obnoxious that you hear it in your sleep, or so fast that you can barely keep up, but it’s absolutely essential that your practice is guided by an accurate timekeeper. Practicing scales and rudiments with a metronome will train your muscles to move in time, and slowly your hands will find it much easier to play with accurate time when there is no metronome – performances for example. Having a metronome accompany your practice sessions will also train your ears to lock into a set tempo and be able to hear if it starts to slow down or speed up. This writer can say from experience, even if you’re not the most technically advanced player in your group, if you have the most developed sense of time, you will be the most valuable player.
- Warm up
Why do athletes stretch before games? They’ve played the game before, their minds are familiar with what their bodies need to do to win; so why is it important for them to warm up? The answer is simple: the faster their muscles are able to respond, the faster they can react to what their opponent is doing. In this metaphor, the opponent is a new piece of music.
The goal of any practice session should be to fine tune techniques, scales, chords, and songs you already know, but to also work on things that you haven’t mastered. Difficult theory, strange scales or chord shapes, and complex time signatures will be much easier to wrap your head around if your body is warmed up and can quickly respond. Say you’ve mastered a piece of music. You’ve completely memorized it start to finish, perfected it, you could play it in your sleep – your body has already formed strong muscle memory with this tune so not warming up may hinder your speed/fluidity, but your hands will still know exactly when and which notes to play (although it will probably sound a little sloppy). For a song you’re just beginning to learn, your muscles aren’t familiar with the placement of notes yet. Thoroughly warming up will eliminate any issues with your body not responding quickly to your brain while working through a brand new piece of music, and you’ll have the song learned much faster than if you had to struggle through waiting on your fingers to warm up while you focus on melodies and phrasing.
- Use good posture
Almost every instrument requires some repetitive motion and can lead to injury over time, even just a few months. The one sure-fire way to protect yourself from strain and injury is to maintain good posture.
There are two guiding principles to maintain good posture. The first is to maintain a solid frame; that way the bones can do the work, easing the burden on muscles. The second is stay relaxed but engaged. You don’t want to tense up, but you also don’t want to be limp like spaghetti.
Something that will help maintain good posture is a good music stand. They allow you to look straight ahead at your music.
- Have fun!
Music is fun. That sentence probably seems pretty obvious to anyone who has decided to dedicate their time and energy to learning an instrument. Even with all the difficulty, frustration, and anxiety that can sometimes come with practice, the act of creating music is a purely wonderful and enjoyable phenomenon. Like with any athlete, their practices and workouts can be extremely difficult, but they power through because playing the game at a higher level than they could before makes it more enjoyable and beneficial for them.
Practice the things you need to practice, but don’t feel bad about taking a few minutes to play through an old favorite or just experimenting with interesting new sounds and ideas – this leads to inspiration, and inspiration leads to growth. Turn on the TV and try to follow along with the melodies of commercial jingles or movie scores, put on an album and try to follow along with the recorded musicians. A clear goal and direction are highly important for a productive practice session, but to repeat what was stated earlier, any time spent with your instrument in your hands gets you a little closer to reaching your goals. Pick it up and don’t put it down!
Have questions? Need advice? West Music is here for you! Give our music education experts a call at 800-373-2000.