I can always tell how someone practices after a few lessons. The most frustrated (and frustrating) students are those who spend hours laboring every week but don’t make substantive progress over the course of a month or two. Occasionally, there is a curricular problem- and we solve it by retrofitting their technique with something to shore up the gap in their competence. Most of the time, it’s because a student doesn’t do much real practice— they play instead. Or worse, they pretend to perform for some invisible ear to satisfy the desire for recognition or perhaps to hide from reality.

How can you tell which one you’re doing? Here’s a wee explainer that hopefully helps. I was once a bit of a player/practice performer myself, so if you feel a flush of embarrassment identifying with the latter portions of this mini-list, fear not. It all stems from a good place- one of wanting to sound good and have some fun. As with nearly everything worthwhile, doing the more humble of the tasks will get you there in the long run, and I still love you if you’ve fallen into bad habits. Now is the time to change!

  1. Practice: Searching, with curiosity and patience, to align technique and approach in order to problem solve and increase quality of overall effort. Practice frequently sounds rough as a student investigates and experiments. Practice is often a series of physical adjustments, although honing (and quieting) the mind are also parts of the process. Practice is about how just as much as what (how the arm shifts to a note, not just whether or not the note is being hit accurately). Practice is slow much more frequently than it is fast.
  2. Pretend Performance: Sounds pretty good, avoids the hard areas, frequently is too fast, so as to sound both impressive and also make the crummy parts go by as quickly as possible. Tends to repeat the favorite parts and double down on mistakes. You’ll hear someone clam the same note over and over again and never slow down, because it’s not about sincere improvement. I ran into this a lot during hockey stick and puck sessions. Players are ostensibly there to practice things they’re not good at, stay limber, work on situations they encounter during games. There are always a few guys who lace up just to practice shootout goals or uncontested breakaways on the poor goalie who is just there trying to keep their skill fresh. These plays almost never happen. They don’t incorporate your teammates. They’re the stuff of fantasy. Every player in the world needs to work on skating and passing, seeing the ice and creating the time and space for things to happen. The fundamentals yield finesse. Work fundamentals and you will happen upon finesse, as a matter of course, given enough time.
  3. Playing: There’s a scene in Hunt for Red October where US and Soviet naval fleets are in close proximity, searching for a missing submarine. This particular sub is equipped with a special propulsion unit that makes it nearly impossible to pick up with standard SONAR. They’re in a race to find the sub (and its Captain, who is defecting) before the Soviets do, and they notice something odd. The Soviet ships are traveling close to 30 kts- far too quickly for careful surveillance. The following quote is from that scene.

At their speed they could run over my daughter's stereo and not hear it.

Jack Ryan figures it out. They’re not trying to find the defecting submarine captain, they’re trying to drive him- straight to US East Coast, where our navy will destroy the sub for them. Okay Emily, what could the point possibly be? Well, when you sit down to practice but you don’t do detailed surveillance of what’s going on, when you’re moving with speed or inattention to physical phenomena, it’s not practicing at all. You’re the Soviet navy, moving quickly just to have the appearance of the chase. There’s no work being done, just skimming the surface. At that speed, you could run over a key change (or new clef, or accidental, or gross shift) and not hear it. Be better than that, Yuri!

See you tomorrow, comrades.