Practice makes perfect


Ukulele practiceWhenever I’m asked for advice from new ukulele players on how to get better, or what secret they need to know to play better, I tell them it’s simple:

Practice.

Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice.

That’s really all these is to it, whether you believe in the 10,000 or 20,000-hour path to accomplishment hypothesis. You gotta practice.

Only when you have practiced enough will your fingers be loose enough, your callouses build sufficiently, and your wrist be flexible enough to play without strain. When you’ve practiced enough you will be able to make chord shapes without having to look them up. You’ll know where to find Bb and D# on the fretboard without stopping to count frets.

Practice. Easy to say, but what with all the distractions – the dog, the TV, the phone calls, the internet, Facebook, the phone again, the neighbour’s kids, the sunny day, the grumbling tummy, the empty coffee cup begging for a refill, the unfinished blog post you’re writing… it’s hard. I find it easiest to go somewhere alone and quiet, and just sit down with some music and work away at it. Close the door and keep the world out for a little while.

I also find it useful to walk around the house with a ukulele, just noodling, fingering the strings, trying chords, maybe even playing a song or two while upright and walking. Sometimes you come up with something interesting when you start out with unstructured time.

I also find just walking around while playing something without really focusing on practice is meditative. It helps me think; clears my mind and makes issues clear. And it helps my motor skills.*

But practice isn’t just noodling around for an hour or so every day. It takes focus, concentration and effort: you have to pay attention to what you’re doing. However, it also needs to be varied and fun. It shouldn’t be a chore you begrudge putting time into. Set tasks, change songs or try to explore different rhythms and strumming patterns. Pick a song you don’t know and learn it: make it a challenge to yourself.

As Dr. Christine Harper tells us:

Constant repetition is boring and our boredom is telling us that our brains are not engaged. But instead of listening to this instinctive voice of reason, we blame ourselves for our lack of attention and yell at ourselves to “focus!”… In a random practice schedule, the performer must keep restarting different tasks. Because beginnings are always the hardest part, it will not feel as comfortable as practicing the same thing over and over again. But this challenge lies at the heart of why random practice schedules are more effective. When we come back to a task after an intervening task, our brain must reconstruct the action plan for what we are about to do. And it is at this moment of reconstruction that our brains are the most active. More mental activity leads to greater long-term learning.


Ukulele practiceI used to practice a lot with other musicians, back when I played guitar. We called it “jamming.” A lot of those sessions were really group practice: we gnawed over a song, perfecting our techniques, timing, chord changes, harmonies, added bass, drums, vocals. Worried it like a dog with a bone.

However, today I tend to practice alone. For me that means playing a song over and over, experimenting with fingering changes, chord changes, strumming changes. The playing another song, over and over. Rinse and repeat. Sometimes drives Susan crazy.

But that may not be the most appropriate way to learn, if Dr. Harper is correct. I still stand by the “do it again” method – just not necessarily the same way every time. Exercise your brain, not just your fingers, when you practice.

I find it’s sometimes helpful to play along with music – the radio, CD or some jam/backing tracks. You can download many backing tracks online, and play along with them. At the very least, it helps you develop a sense of timing, so you anticipate chord changes.

Musician Ivan Olarte provided some down-to-earth tips about his own practice methods:

Within the time allotted, I still break it down into 3 or 4 small time periods where I can cover the following:

  • Start with Some warm up and mechanics,
  • On to Scales and dexterity exercises,
  • Followed by New pieces that I’m currently working on,
  • Ending up with one or two pieces from my established repertoire

For some quirky reason I got into the habit of finishing with a quick rendition of “Suicide Is Painless” the theme from M*A*S*H. Don’t ask me why, but it just became my tradition, and a way to let everyone in my house know that I’m done and they can come into the room or what not…
It’s amazing that in as little as 20 minutes these various facets of practice can be covered. Obviously if the practice session is that short I will only do 10 minutes or so of each portion. If I have an hour or more I may focus more time on particular activities (You may notice that I no longer like to use the word TASK) on any given day.

Practice – with others if you can – is what you need to be prepared to perform live, too. You need to be able to play a song or piece without hesitation or mistakes. In “Thoughts on Practicing,” Martin Schuring wrote:

There is no such thing as being too well prepared. You get one chance to play something correctly. At that point, you don’t want a 50% chance of accuracy; you don’t even want a 99% chance. You want it to be right and give the listener the impression that it was easy. Remember – in order for it to sound easy, it must be easy. There is no faking this.

Dr. Noa Kageyama writes:

Deliberate practice is a systematic and highly structured activity, which is, for lack of a better word, scientific. Instead of mindless trial and error, it is an active and thoughtful process of experimentation with clear goals and hypotheses. Violinist Paul Kantor once said that the practice room should be like a laboratory, where one can freely tinker with different ideas, both musical and technical, to see what combination of ingredients produces the result you are looking for.

How long should you practice every day? Depends on your goal. To learn a specific song or technique? Or just to get generally better? There are arguments that range from 20 minutes to several hours a day.

Music teacher, Dr. Shinichi Suzuki said, “Only practice on the days you eat.” He also said many deeply moving things about music, art and the human heart, you should read on the linked page.

Me, I practice as long as it remains interesting, fun and challenging. I want to always enjoy making music, even if I’m just doing it alone for practice. When it feels like effort, gets monotonous, or my attention starts to wander, then I quit. But that doesn’t mean I don’t pick up a ukulele a little later and start again. The music sometimes just calls out and says “play me again.”

And that’s one of the wonderful things about a uke: I can carry it around easily, play it anywhere, don’t need a strap, a special chair, or need to assemble anything to play.
~~~~~
* Walking meditation or kinhin, is a method of contemplation done by Buddhists, often between sessions of sitting meditation – zazen. But I’m not talking about something quite so formal… more a simple drifting away from the things that demand our everyday attention; our care and woes, and letting your musical brain rise from its slumber and take over.