Music Mondays: The Art of Practicing Music (and Writing)

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Another instalment in the Music Mondays series.

For the last two Sundays and the one after, I’ve been tutoring a few piano students on proper practicing technique. Perhaps you’ve heard of the phrase “practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.” This is absolutely correct. It certainly applies when attempting to master a musical instrument. And of course it applies in writing.

This is what I tell my students:

Ruf_clarinetist_4501. Pick out the parts you’re most uncomfortable with, and practice those tiny sections until they’re absolutely perfect.

If you’re struggling with only 2 bars, practice only those 2 bars. If you’re only struggling with 3 notes, practice only those 3 notes. The worst we can do is play the song from beginning to end over and over. It’s ineffective. And a waste of time.

Kids hate this. They want to play the entire song because it sounds nice and it’s the entire song. They don’t want to focus on the hard parts because those parts are hard. They want to play the parts they’re good at because they’re good at them and those part sound nice.

Likewise, when we edit our writing, we smile at ourselves when we read the parts we wrote well, and we glaze over the parts that honestly need some work. Bolt yourself to your chair and force yourself to untangle your kinks. You know where those are.

Hell, take that chapter that hasn’t been working, print it out, stick it in the middle of your desk, and don’t take your ass from your chair until you’ve sorted that shit out.

2. Practice the difficult parts staccato to improve your articulation. If you can master a difficult part staccato, you can play it normally with flying colours.

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Many students struggle with “articulation”––that is, playing each note clearly. Bunches of notes, especially dense figures with tricky fingering, can be difficult to play clearly. I tell these students what my teacher told me: practice staccato (basically, putting a bouncing or “jumping” effect on each note). It’s very difficult to play steadily, precisely, and with articulation if you’re staccato-ing every note. But if you can master the passage in staccato, playing normally is piece of cake.

Likewise, when you’re struggling with originality in your writing, feel free to place constraints on yourself. Constraint doesn’t mean stifling creativity. In fact, I find constraints terribly liberating. Constraints put you in a box and force you to think outside of it. They force you to find a new solution to an old problem.

3. Record yourself, and listen to your recording.

Today I recorded a 10 year-old boy’s recording, then played it back for him. I asked him what he did well and what he could improve on. When playing music, you are biased as the performer; what the audience hears is not what you hear in real time. You always sound better to yourself. When you record yourself though, you can easily hear your flaws, naked and committed to tape.

Read your writing aloud. Better yet, ask someone else to read it aloud to you. Obstructions to flow will become blatantly obvious. You don’t need an army of beta readers or workshop buddies to sharpen your writing.

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4. Take breaks.

When I was practicing for the diploma exam, I was easily practicing 3+ hours a day (weekends included) in addition to school and other extracurriculars. This is not the best thing to do with your body…I remember stretching out sore arm muscles, doing push-ups to keep fit, and sneaking chocolate in between pieces for “energy.”

As with any endeavour, musical or literary, give yourself a break. Doing something too much too intensely will drive you crazy and will actually hurt the quality of your output. Give yourself a break. Sleep now. Wake up tomorrow with a fresh start and a fresh eye.

How do you practice your craft? What sorts of techniques do you employ?

Click here for more Music Mondays…where the auditory and literary arts unite!

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One thought on “Music Mondays: The Art of Practicing Music (and Writing)

  1. I love that “if you can play it in staccato you can play it normally” feeling. One of the restraints in writing in which that could be similarly applied I think might be in poetry; finding a certain number of beats and rhythm this line must fit in and fiddling words into it to find the perfect beat/rhythm you are looking for before checking that you’ve used the words you absolutely meant. If you don’t know your beat/rhythm and just stop at letting whatever words flow,the articulation of the poem gets muddy.
    By the way, I’m not sure how often my teacher explained it to me but no matter how she explained it I never really understood what articulation meant all the while I was told to practice that way…I hope your kids actually understand the word/concept haha!

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