In this post, we review Miranda Wilson's 2012 article, "Practice Mythbusters: Common Misconceptions About Practice For Advanced Students" which debunks several common misconceptions about music practice.
Wilson was inspired to write the piece by one of her students whose playing was not progressing, despite his reported hours and hours of practice (without much rest in between). She resolved to set him straight by giving her perspective on what works, and doesn’t work, when it comes to learning and practicing music.
These insights will hopefully benefit students, teachers and musicians alike, and are relevant to all instruments, for those who play mainly classical music, and across all other musical genres.
1. More Practice, Better Musician?
Supposedly, practice makes perfect. As a result, many musicians - especially less experienced ones - focus on how long they spend practicing. They tend to think that the more hours they put in, the faster their progress will be.
In fact, Wilson suggests there is no substantive evidence for this. Most academic research in this particular area has concluded that what really counts is not how much you practice, but the quality of your practice sessions. Long, marathon practice sessions without rest are generally unproductive, and in fact can be mentally and physically detrimental for most musicians.
Instead, Wilson recommends short, considered, goal-oriented practice. Aim for focused, intense sessions of about 30 minutes, and make sure your practice is structured and efficient. Quality over quantity is very much the way to go.
2: Skip a Day, Lose a Week?
Another common fallacy. In reality, rest and recuperation are integral to the learning process. Far from setting you back, resting consolidates your knowledge and improves your cognitive recall. This has been demonstrated by research in several different contexts (including music practice: https://www.nkoda.com/blog/Sleep).
Wilson also reminds us that playing music is a physical and mental endeavour. Overworking can lead to exhaustion, demotivation, and even physical injury.
By embracing thoughtful practice methods, and resting regularly, you can retain knowledge far more efficiently - so taking a day off definitely won't harm your progress.
3. Technique before Expression?
In the very early stages of learning, focusing on technique is vital. However, as you advance, musical expression becomes equally crucial. Wilson believes the assumption that technique should be perfected, before introducing expressiveness, is fundamentally misguided.
She argues that musical expression often informs and improves your technique. And for many musicians, from novices through to experienced performers, the ability to express themselves is the reason they play music in the first place.
Wilson sees it as essential to work on expression, alongside technique, from the get-go.
4. Perfect Slow, Perfect Fast?
There is a school of thought which suggests that, if you perfect a piece by deliberately playing it slowly, you’ll also be able to perfect it at the correct tempo.
But Wilson points out that techniques appropriate for slow playing - particularly on stringed instruments - may not work well when the tempo has to be increased. So in fact playing a piece too slowly, for too long, can be counter-productive.
Instead, Wilson suggests a strategy of practicing slowly for a short amount of time, then increasing the tempo gradually - say by alternating increments of 10bpm with decrements of 5bpm - until you reach the correct tempo.
5. Marathon Practice Builds Stamina?
Lastly, there is the idea that practicing for extended periods will build up stamina for performances. Wilson completely rejects this, arguing that concerts rarely last for hours, and that adrenaline will give you a natural boost during longer performances anyway. Just playing for extended periods is not the answer.
She suggests that setting up performance conditions during your practice sessions will provide a more authentic rehearsal experience and better prepare you for concerts.
For example, visualising a large audience during practice is an effective way of re-creating a performance scenario during practice, and can help develop expression, connection and projection (see our earlier blog: https://www.nkoda.com/blog/Perfection).
Whether you're a student, a teacher or a seasoned musician, debunking these 5 common practice myths will hopefully make your sessions more efficient and effective, and also more enjoyable.