As an instrumental music teacher the subject of practise is one that I discuss almost on a daily basis with all kinds of people. Usually it’s with my pupils or their parents but it is a topic that comes up in social situations too. Maybe I’m chatting with someone about cookery, open source software or learning a language; eventually the subject of practising to learn new skills will creep into the conversation. I also tend to talk a lot about podcasts and YouTube videos as I can be quite an obsessive consumer of these at times. I find it quite mind-blowing how much you can passively learn over time just from listening to others talking about their passions and interests.
One YouTube channel that I’m a bit of a fan of is that of Mike Boyd. Mike constantly tasks himself with learning new skills and in the past few years has learnt over fifty-two new skills. These vary from the frivolous, such as spinning a ball on his finger or doing a wheelie on a bike, to more serious skills such as swimming a mile in freezing cold water. Mike, it appears, is a real master of mind and body… or is he? I think that if you were to ask him then he’d probably say no. What Mike seems to be master of is practise.
A recent video that Mike put out featured his wife Kim, who learned to juggle as a test to see whether or not Mike learns skills faster than the average person. You can watch this video here, but please remember to read the rest of this article… you haven’t gotten to the good bit yet!
This video really got me into thinking about how I describe the process of practise to people. I’ve done it in a couple ways in the past and neither of them have been particularly effective.
I’m not a fan of the traditional model of music practise that is sold to keen beginners when they take up an instrument. By that I mean getting your instrument and music out, standing in a room alone and repeatedly struggling to get better at the work you’ve been set for half an hour per day, every day. My modus operandi goes like this: I leave instruments and mouthpieces lying around in most rooms of the house. Whenever I walk into a room, get bored whilst sat at the computer, am forced to wait the labourious ninety seconds for the kettle to boil, etc., I pick up an instrument and I start to play. This way I do between five and ten minutes of practise repeatedly throughout the day. This is how I learnt to play when I was young and playing along to the radio in this way is how I learned to play by ear and later developed that into perfect pitch. Another way this system can work is to have a trumpet or cornet nearby when watching television. Whenever the adverts come on you can play for a few minutes. Working like this I would set goals to achieve in that short time and it’s a very effective way to add a little pressure to your mini practise sessions. I’ve told many of my pupils about this way of working. To date I’m only aware of one of them who has actually tried it. I know this because after six months his trumpet had been dropped and knocked off of tables so many times that it needed replacing… #facepalm.
Another thing that I’ve often reserved for more experienced players is simply describing how many hours of an average week I would spend playing my cornet or trumpet between the ages of twelve and sixteen. During that time I attended brass band rehearsals twice per week (four hours). I played in two bands at a Saturday morning music club (two and a half hours). I had a weekly lesson (half an hour) and a couple of lunchtime music groups at school (one hour). In an average week I was engaged in musical activities for a minimum of eight and a half hours before personal practise. And that’s an average week without concerts on the weekends or county brass band or concert band courses to attend. There actually weren’t very many of these minimal “average” weeks. Telling people this information rarely inspires them to try harder so these days I just save it for someone who needs a scare.
In Mike Boyd’s videos he places a counter on the screen so that the viewer gets to see how much time he has dedicated to practising his new skill. In the video above it took Kim just over four hours to learn to juggle three balls continuously for over thirty seconds. She did this over the course of eight days, which is an average of half an hour per day. If Kim were to have only spent ten minutes per day, six days per week, practising then it would have taken a month to achieve her goal. In all likelihood it would have taken longer because a basic familiarity with the task would have taken much longer to settle in her mind and muscle memory.
The problem with this comparison is that it isn’t simply one thing that you are trying to learn when you pick up a musical instrument. What if the skill that you are trying to master is playing one scale from memory and it requires four hours of continuous practise? Well, if you were to practise one scale at a time for ten minutes per day then you could learn all twelve major scales in a year. But after eleven months do you think you’d remember the first scale that you learnt to play? Maybe. (click this link to learn more about my method of teaching scales. There’s also a book about it in my store.)
Here’s another example: a student has an exam coming up in two months and they still cannot play the required music from beginning to end without stopping. If they practise for ten minutes per day, six days per week, then as far as playing time is concerned the exam is eight hours away. It is 9am, could they take the exam at 5pm and pass?
All in all I think there’s a lot of perspective to be gained from doing some simple maths relating to instrumental practise. It’s a great way of understanding how much work needs to be done but also a good way of allowing yourself to accept your limitations in terms of progress. Are you having trouble with double tonguing? How many hours have you invested in nothing but trying to improve it? Maybe you could learn it in four hours of dedicated practise. But something else that Mike Boyd does is research. If you’re struggling to do something on your instrument then it’s best to find out how others do it before you waste time practising the wrong way. It takes longer to over-write a bad habit than to form it correctly in the first place.
The most important things are motivation and enjoyment. Enjoyment can even be used as motivation! I always tell my pupils that it’s fun to be good at something and you get good by setting goals. So, what are you going to learn this week?