If you want to take music seriously, your actions have to get serious. I could summarize this whole post by one word: practice.
It’s something that we, musicians, hear a lot. While we know it is true, it doesn’t always resonate with us so much. I think this statement can be dissected into more precise points that will make you reflect on what you are presently doing to be a better musician, how you are doing it and how you could improve it. Here are my 10 points:
1 – Understand what practising means
This might sound stupid, but I’m sure a lot of you don’t even know what practising is or don’t practice anymore, in the proper term of the word:
Practising:’’repeated performance or systematic exercise for the purpose of acquiring skill or proficiency:’’
Practising doesn’t mean taking your instrument and goofing on it. It means sitting down with your instrument with a lot of concentration, focus and doing something that will impact and improve your skill set. Knowing that, ask yourself if you are truly practising in your musician life right now. Or if you have ever really practised.
2 – Schedule when you are going to practice
Being organized is the key. If you just practice your instrument whenever you feel like it, you are not going to make any progress, because the key to progressing is to be consistent with your practising schedule.
You have to give immense importance to this. Think about it: what very important things in your life are you not scheduling? Nothing? That’s what I thought. If you are looking to get serious about playing your instrument, you have got to schedule it.
3 – Have a plan: what are you going to practise?
Now, you know you’re going to practise every week days from 7pm to 8pm, but it doesn’t end there. You now have to plan some content to it. If not, you will certainly play more, but not practise more (remember the definition?).
You have to make a list of what you want to practise and organize it. Having anything planned in details helps you to stay focused. An example for guitar:
Schedule – Version 1
10 minutes – Major Scales
5 minutes – Chords
5 minutes – Alternate Picking Exercise
20 minutes – Working on Led Zeppelin solo section
Schedule – Version 2
7:00 – 7:10 Major Scales
7:10 – 7:15 Chords
7:15 – 7:20 Alternate Picking Exercise
7:20 – 7:40 Working on Led Zeppelin solo section
If you know you are disciplined enough to work with full focus for one hour, you can simply write down the stuff you need to do and do it in any particular order during this hour. But I know a lot of people need to be organized and if they don’t do it themselves, no one is going to do it for them!
Usually, I like having a timer on my phone to keep track of how much time I’ve been practising. I don’t allow myself to stop before the 1 hour mark, so usually I go well over it.
4 – Vary the content of your practice
This is crucial. No one appreciates a one hour practice schedule doing the same scale over and over. Why sticking to one thing when there are endless techniques and things to master on your instrument?
If you lack ideas of what to practise, there are countless of exercises, new techniques or challenging songs ready to be worked on that you can find on books, methods, on internet or with a good teacher.
5 – Balance what you need to practice vs. what you want to practice
I think this a step where a lot of serious musicians are left of. It’s easy sitting an hour to practise what you really want to do, but there are other things that are essential to your baggage as a musician.
You cannot overlook many aspects of technique; it’s your bread and butter as an instrumentalist. Playing songs that you love will certainly be a lot of fun (and nothing that you ever do is going to be lost, anyways), but if you don’t ever work on technique, you are going to be lacking something along the way. Especially if you have some big ambitions.
It’s sad to hear, but sometimes gaining more technique can only be done by doing exercises that are precisely targeting a certain technique or technical difficulty. And if you stop doing them, there is a certain threshold that will bring you down to your previous level very fast. That is part of the game.
When you are a beginner, there are some things that you learn that you will never forget (like riding a bicycle), but when you are a professional, if you don’t keep practising your technique at a high level, you can surely lose it. You have to stay in shape. Your hands or mouth or feet (depending on how you produce sound on your instrument) all have small muscles, but they’re still muscles and you need to keep working out.
I know it well too much for playing in a progressive rock band, which is a genre which can get very technical and challenging. If I had not kept myself in shape over the years (and on 2 instruments!), I would most certainly would never have gotten the gig that was a huge step in my professional musician life.
6 – Practice with a metronome
Oh, you hear it often, but it is a statement that could not be truer! Unless you are playing shakuhachi Japanese music which has its own concept of inner time and phrases, you have to play and train yourself to follow some kind of structure. If you play in a band, you have a drummer behind you. If you do some acoustic solo music, your guitar is going to make the audience feel the pulsation.
The metronome gives you exactly that structure. The 2 fundamental structures you have to master are the melodic side and the rhythmic side of music. If you never practise to a metronome, you are going to be automatically 50% more handicapped compared to another musician, because you will have mastered only the melodic side of music which is only half of the game (I know, there are a thousand other parameters in music, but I think there is still some kind of truth to this).
Another nice advantage of practising to a metronome is that you have a direct, tangible indicator of your progression. If you could play that line at 120 bpm (beat per minute) last week and can play it up to 125 bpm this week, you know there has been some kind of improvement. If you play without a click you will never be conscious that you have improved and it’s easy to get discouraged.
7 – Allow yourself some days of rest
If you follow the previous steps for a long time, there are chances that you acquired the necessary discipline to improve a lot on your instrument and that you will see results. That is very exciting!
But don’t forget that you also have to get some days of rest. Professional athletes don’t go to the gym every day. They have to restore their bodies and mind once every couple days. It’s the same thing with playing instruments. Like I said, we are building ourselves some tiny muscles, but they’re still muscles. They need some rest too.
There are even studies that showed that having days of rest even helps to improve a lot more, because the brain has the time to process the information and continues to work on it even if you are not doing it or realizing it. Sometimes your brain needs that pause to clean and organize all the new stuff and new skills up in your head.
8 – Have some goals
What you are going to practise should be directly related to your goals. If you want to play in a progressive rock band like me, there are chances that you will have to plan some very tricky and technical stuff to practise to be right on track with the musicianship level required for the genre.
On the contrary, if you want to play with a very funky band, there are chances that you are going to work a lot more on your timing and feel… and a lot less on being able to play 200 notes per second.
If you want to be an ambient guitar solo artist, you might settle for exercises that will help you being super precise and on time on slow tempos, as you are not allowed to make even one single mistake when recording multiple loops.
You see, you have to identify the exact strengths you need to acquire to reach your own goals and find exercises related them.
9 – Aspire to be versatile
That being said, I think that being the most versatile you can be in any genre will always be at your benefit, so changing your practice plan once in a while to highlight some new strengths is never a bad idea.
You never know as a musician what opportunities you’re going to get. So if you spent 5 years practising power chords and the same scales because all you want to do is Punk music, but suddenly you have the opportunity to get a 150,000$ contract to play for Celine Dion for the next 3 months (fictional, I know!) and are not able to read a simple pop chart or handle some basic key changes, it is too bad for you and your career, my friend.
I understand that some readers are not interested in the big international music career out there, but if ever you secretly dream of it, you have to realize this statement. The more instruments, genres, and techniques you can master, the more chances you will get the big gig someday.
10 – Have some fun!
After all of that is being said, the most important thing is to have some fun while doing it. If doing your daily practice schedule is a chore, makes you angry and frustrated every day and that you never look up to it, it’s not going to help you AT ALL! There is the importance to balance the technical aspects that you need to have with the other aspects of music that you want to do.
If it means learning a song that you really love during your one hour schedule, or allowing yourself 15 minutes to improvise, or finishing your schedule by writing or working on a song of yours… go for it! You have to reward yourself for doing the repetitive, hard things that are necessary to get you far. Myself, I am not always so keen on doing exercises (especially because I want to master the keyboards as good as I master the guitar presently), but I know it’s for my own benefit. It’s like eating your vegetables that you like a little bit less, but you know it’s good for your health. Or running for 30 minutes and being breathless, but knowing that you did something good for your body. It’s the same thing for music and practising.
If you’ve got other tips, or some tips on this list that you really don’t agree with, please share it with us in the comment section below!