How to Practice for the Amateur Musician
Practicing is a way of life for the professional musician, but few know that it is also important for the amateur musician. Practice is the only way besides playing gigs to get better. Even if you are an amateur, it will greatly enhance your enjoyment of playing your particular instrument. If you occasionally play guitar around a campfire or piano for a party, you want to have the skills to be able to play without stopping, pausing, remembering chords, or not being able to sight read a song. The only way to correct these problems is to practice. Think about how much more enjoyment you can bring to people at a party when you actually have a repertoire that you can play with no mistakes. Here are some good practical practicing tips.
1. Buy a metronome and use it. This tip is the first because it is the most important. We all have our internal clock that makes us think that we are playing straight through a piece of music in perfect time, but your internal clock is quite fallible. What is really happening is that you are playing through the music and you are unknowingly making allowances so you can get through the music without stopping. For example, you might slow down during hard passages and speed up or cheat notes during slow ones. Cheating notes is when you don’t hold a note out to its full value. You might be holding a whole note for 3 ¾ beats instead of the full four. We all do it and the metronome is the way to fix it.
A metronome is also a good practice tool when you have to practice a difficult musical passage slowly in order to get it down. Even though you might start playing it slowly, you will invariably speed up negating the value of practicing it slow. More on that in Tip #3.
In this day and age, metronomes are cheap. You can get an inexpensive one for about $15 at the music store, but the best are the metronome apps that you can purchase or get for free for your smart phone. There really is no excuse not to have one.
2. Record yourself. This is a tip that might seem unusual at first, but it is a good one. Recording yourself on your instrument can reveal so many inconsistencies and now with smart phones, you have a recorder right in your pocket. When you listen to yourself, it gives you a chance to really hear where the problem areas are that you wouldn’t normally hear when you are playing. You might hear where you are playing flat/sharp or where you might be playing with a bad tone. You will also be able to hear how you are executing the music with your phrasing and articulation. Recording can be very revealing and should be done on a regular basis especially when you have a piece of music that you think you have mastered.
3. When the going gets tough, practice slowly and deliberately. We all hit roadblocks where the music is just too hard to play. Practicing slowly can only be done with a metronome. The only way to get it down is to slow it down. This allows your brain to figure out how to execute the passage. After all, you really aren’t training your hands or your fingers, but you are training your brain. I hear many musicians playing the same tough passages over and over again at performance tempo thinking they will eventually get it. Sometimes that might work but most likely, it will not. Slow it down to a speed in which you can actually play it even if it is less than half the speed. Many times it helps to have a metronome with a subdividing feature to it. Don’t be afraid to play it ridiculously slow. Keep it on that slow tempo until you can play the passage 10 or 15 times perfectly then start moving the dial up by a few ticks faster each time playing until you can play the passage perfectly 10 or 15 times. With lots of patience, you will have the musical passage at and right tempo and consistently play it correctly time after time. Then, of course, record the passage to see how you are doing.
4. Practice in a private room or area where no one can hear you. This is also a lesser-known tip to amateurs and professionals alike. The purpose of practicing is to improve your playing and in turn, make playing much more enjoyable. You have to go to a place where you will not feel self-conscious and be afraid to play or sing terribly. Part of the practicing process is not playing well and trying to improve. Find a private room, a backyard, garage, shed, cellar or any kind of private space where you can squeak, squawk, play sharp, sing flat or just sound like hell and no one will ever know except you. If you aren’t self-conscience, you can be much more productive. If you are practicing near people where you feel you might be judged then you aren’t practicing, you’re performing.
5. Don’t waste practice time playing the stuff you already know. I hear many musicians practice the same songs every day and truthfully, they don’t need to practice them. It’s easy to get lazy and just think that you are putting in the time, but this is for your improvement not for the sake of putting in hours. Work on something that challenges you. Again, if you are playing music you already know during a practice session then you aren’t practicing; you’re just playing or performing.
6. Consistency is the key. Many people think you have to practice hours and hours to get good. If you are a professional, this is true in many instances. Wynton Marsalis practices many hours a day before his gigs and then many times will practice after his gigs as well. This is, of course, why he is so good. But for many people such as amateurs and young students, quality and consistency is better than quantity. The key is to practice everyday no matter how short or long. If you can practice everyday for 15 minutes you can get a lot more done than if you practice an hour every three days or sporadically. If you have just come home from work and you are tired, just try to practice a little bit just so you are doing it everyday. It is one of the keys to becoming one with your instrument. My children who have been taking piano for 4 years have always been required to play 15 minutes everyday. They are typical children and want to get their practice time out of the way so they can play their video games. I am always amazed at how much they can get done in just 15 minutes of quality practice time a day. Don’t ever feel like it is not worth practicing if you only have a few minutes. Of course, if you can put in 1, 2 or upwards of quality practice every day, then that is all the better.
7. Play to recordings. This is one of my favorite ways to improve myself and it works best when you are practicing jazz or rock music and are a little bit more advanced. If you are trying to emulate the way a famous musician is playing, a great way to figure out what they are doing is to transcribe their songs and play along to the recording itself. A drummer I knew used to set up a sound system in his garage with his drum set. He’d crank the volume like he was playing in a band and play along to his favorite recordings. It’s a great way of finding out the intricacies of the music. It will also tell you when you need to go back to the tips listed above. Many times it is easier and a lot more fun to learn music this way than to actually buy the sheet music.
Music should always be fun even when practicing. If you ever get frustrated, stop what you are doing and practice something else. With a little mindful practice, you will find music to be incredibly enjoyable to you and the people you play for in the living room or around the campfire.
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