Monday, May 7, 2012

Ten-Times Faster

The thing about practicing is that you tend to learn whatever it is you practice. This may seem obvious, and it is at the surface. However, as I watch people practice, I'm pretty sure they haven't fully explored the implications of this simple statement.

I think the operative word is: whatever. You learn whatever you practice. If you practice the wrong pronunciation, you learn the wrong pronunciation. If you practice music halting for difficult passages, you learn to play haltingly and without rhythm. If you practice math problems sloppily, you learn to do math sloppily.

Practice is the most effective means of learning I've encountered. However, its being effective in no way guarantees that you'll get the results you desire. To get the desired results, you have to practice well. If you do, you can increase your productivity by a factor of ten.

Let's talk about this in the context of learning to play or sing music. There isn't much to it and you'll be able to extrapolate to pretty much anything else.
  1. Always practice with a click (a metronome). This will ensure that you play at a consistent pace and is a prerequisite for all that follows.
  2. Never practice anything faster than you play it well.

    When you play with a click and you have a piece with challenging sections, one of two things will happen. Either you'll play at the rate that is comfortable for the easier sections and fumble through the challenging ones, or, you'll play the easier sections at a super slow rate and play the challenging sections well.

    Without the click, you'd probably rush through the easier sections and slow down for the faster ones (that's a great way to learn to play with inconsistent tempo) or you'd just get used to screwing up the difficult parts (building a healthy cringe factor into your anticipation of them).
  3. Don't spend time on anything you know well.

    I can't tell you how many players, after pulling out their instruments, start playing exactly the same riff they always play. Many have an entire litany of phrases and passages that they know well and play every time they begin practicing. From an optimal practice perspective, this is a complete waste of time.

    To practice well, slow the metronome and dive into those sections that are most challenging (and likely least loved).
  4. Break down big chunks.

    Challenging sections are often long, specially when you've just started playing. If they're long, break them down into smaller chunks. Work each section one at the time, slowly increasing the tempo until you can play it a speed.

    Once you've got it, move on to the next challenging section.
  5. Work the transitions.

    Frequently someone who's taken time to break down a piece into sections and worked the sections individually will have difficulty putting them all together into a song. They'll set the metronome to a comfortable rate and start rolling through the song from the beginning. However, at the first transition from one section to the next, they'll hesitate or fumble.

    Rather than starting at the beginning and playing to the end, start practicing repeatedly the transitions from one section to the next. For example, if you have a bass line for the A section of a song and one for the B section, then work just the transition from A to B.

    Each time you work out a transitional kink, you'll have merged to sections into one. Work in this manner until you've merged all the sections in a complete song.
That's it: five easy steps to optimal practice.  Everyone I know who's put these to work has dramatically improved the effectiveness of their practice, squeezing months into weeks and even into days.

The caveat is that only about ten percent of the people with whom I've shared these techniques (people who've understood and agreed with them) ever really use them.

Happy Monday,

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