Practice Is More Than Drudgery in Isolation

Western music education often perpetuates a narrow and unbalanced view of practice. “Practicing” music usually involves sitting alone in a room and grinding through something tedious in order to achieve future rewards. While work ethic and discipline are important, they’re part of a much larger picture.

Photo courtesy of Jason Tong

In other domains, a practice is a broader concept. Practicing medicine is much more than studying for a few hours a day—it encompasses seeing patients, research, collaboration, continuing education. Religious and spiritual practices are embedded into the fabric of our lives. There’s not a separation between “practice” and “the real thing.”

Embracing a broad, integrated, and holistic view of practice helps us stay on the path over a lifetime. Some master musicians I’ve had the privilege of playing and interacting with have a deeper, and even spiritual, component to their practice. (See my article Jerry Bergonzi’s Secret).

Practicing Buckets

To embrace a broad view of practice, I started organizing activities and projects into categories, or “practicing buckets.” This framework has helped my students as well. The time we devote to each bucket and project can vary greatly, but this framework helps us acknowledge all the components of our practice.

Mindful Rituals

Connecting with sound and the physicality of playing our instrument. A meditative warm-up helps us calm our minds, get absorbed in sound, and train our attention. The idea is to be fascinated with repetition and embrace the here-and-now of playing.

Deliberate Practice

Decades of research from Anders Erickson shows us that “deliberate practice” is the most effective and efficient approach for mastering a skill. Deliberate practice requires a clear and specific goal, repetition, and immediate feedback. Here is the processed distilled into a clear formula by Dr. Noa Kageyama of The Bulletproof Musician:

Deliberate practice helps us build technique, tackle challenging repertoire, and reach other clearly defined goals.

Discovery Zone

We find the discovery zone when we seek novel experiences and embrace the path of lifelong learning. We get into this zone by following our curiosity rather than someone else’s instructions.

Repertoire

Studying and interpreting music written great composers, preparing for performance.

Creative Practice

Generating new material through improvisation and composition. My free book Creativity Triggers for Musicians outlines strategies for diving into creative practice.

Deep Listening

Listening to and resonating with live or recorded music with our full attention.

Collaboration

Creating music with others including rehearsal, performance, collaborative bands, and jam sessions.


We can come up with many more buckets. The idea is to name and honor every component of our musical practice, which is much more than toiling in isolation.

– ST

Check out my presentation on this topic for a group of high school jazz musicians here.