T Nation

Musicians: Structure Practice Like Your Workouts?

This is something I’ve been debating a lot. I am a pianist, I learned piano from the age of 6 until I was 13. Didn’t get all that far, about grade 3 or something. Never really did any practise so it wasn’t surprising. Giving up was the biggest regret of my life.

A couple of years ago I properly discovered blues and jazz, particularly the music of New Orleans, and about 18 months ago I started teaching myself to play piano again. I am way beyond where I was as a kid, as I’ve never been so motivated to succeed at something and make up for lost time.

Currently I’m playing a lot of pieces around grade 7 (UK). Since, I’ve had a couple of trial lessons with a few teachers, who have said some nice things about my potential, but it hasn’t worked out (I do recgonise that with the right teacher, progress would be quicker, technique more refined etc).

My beef with most (music) teachers, is that they tend to cater to people who want to make average progress, in an average time frame, and ultimately with money tight I can’t justify paying for average results. There are no excellent teachers around where I live. It sounds arrogant, but I have such a burning desire to succeed at becoming excellent (no desire to go pro), that I feel from my experience as a kid that I would be held back (or maybe frustrated is a better word) by taking lessons with most of these teachers.

Consequently, I am left to my own devices to structure my practise routines. I know there are some excellent musicians on here, who have achieved a high level of expertise, and I was wondering how you guys went about getting there as efficiently as possible.

I was thinking that it may be worth experimenting with structuring my practise in the same way as you might structure a workout. Ideas such as: picking a main piece to work on (each piece 1-2 times a week), and then doing support work for that piece, such as exercises, relevant scales, etc, including a lot of ‘high volume’ type stuff, so picking an exercise that is easy to play right, but working on doubling the speed, or reharmonising, or whatever.

Basically any advice would be appreciated, as getting an excellent teacher is out of the question (for now)

[quote]H1989S wrote:

I was thinking that it may be worth experimenting with structuring my practise in the same way as you might structure a workout. Ideas such as: picking a main piece to work on (each piece 1-2 times a week), and then doing support work for that piece, such as exercises, relevant scales, etc, including a lot of ‘high volume’ type stuff, so picking an exercise that is easy to play right, but working on doubling the speed, or reharmonising, or whatever.

[/quote]

This is basically what I do. I learn songs. I will learn the parts of the song, then put it all together, playing the whole way through (even through fuck-ups). Any parts I have trouble with I turn into exercises that I repeat incessantly for an arbitrary length of time.

I don’t practice scales (though I do have a decent working-knowledge of theory). I will do some technique exercises as a warmup.

My practice is like this:

warmup/technique practice - 10-15 min
play song of day - 5 min
drill hard parts - 30 min
re-play song - 5 min
jam - depends how much time I have

Other times, when I’m working out a song, I’ll spend the whole time transcribing.

DISCLAIMER: I am learning guitar and am basically an intermediate player, so take my advice/experience FWIW.

yes! it’s very tempting to just go and play what’s fun for an hour, but structuring your sessions as you both have said will really make your progress much much faster.

I used to give drumming lessons and would tell my students to structure their sessions like so
-short warmup with rudiments - focus on stick technique, posture
-work on rudiments, pick on of them and master it, practice the previously learned rudiments - this “greases the groove” for your main work
-work on your goals of the week - a song, a technique, a new beat, etc
-review stuff that you’ve done in the past - keep a list of what to review so that you don’t skip it, if you don’t practice it you’ll lose it
-fun time

to be honest over half of the time I would just go and jam and have fun, but when I started teaching I was pretty adamant about the students being focused, this ended in them learning far far faster than I ever did.

Regarding goals of the week - make them varied, try different styles of music even if they aren’t something you necessarily love to listen to. Play with others and record yourself when you can too.

[quote]Steel Nation wrote:

[quote]H1989S wrote:

I was thinking that it may be worth experimenting with structuring my practise in the same way as you might structure a workout. Ideas such as: picking a main piece to work on (each piece 1-2 times a week), and then doing support work for that piece, such as exercises, relevant scales, etc, including a lot of ‘high volume’ type stuff, so picking an exercise that is easy to play right, but working on doubling the speed, or reharmonising, or whatever.

[/quote]

This is basically what I do. I learn songs. I will learn the parts of the song, then put it all together, playing the whole way through (even through fuck-ups). Any parts I have trouble with I turn into exercises that I repeat incessantly for an arbitrary length of time.

I don’t practice scales (though I do have a decent working-knowledge of theory). I will do some technique exercises as a warmup.

My practice is like this:

warmup/technique practice - 10-15 min
play song of day - 5 min
drill hard parts - 30 min
re-play song - 5 min
jam - depends how much time I have

Other times, when I’m working out a song, I’ll spend the whole time transcribing.

DISCLAIMER: I am learning guitar and am basically an intermediate player, so take my advice/experience FWIW.

[/quote]

Thanks very much for the reply. Very interesting to hear that you spend the whole practise session transcribing. How has that worked for you? What kind of progress have you made with playing by ear? It’s something I know I need to be doing, but because I can read sheet music, I kid myself that I’d make faster progress if I got technically very good first.

I’m also a real theory nerd. I am in the unusual position of being at an advanced level of theoretical knowledge, and a relatively intermediate level of actual applied ability. I’m hoping that it will be speeding up my actual skill acquisition time though.

I played guitar in my years between piano, mainly metal, with the odd compulsory bit of Hendrix thrown in too! I want to get back to it in time, once I’m at an advanced level with the piano.

[quote]browndisaster wrote:
yes! it’s very tempting to just go and play what’s fun for an hour, but structuring your sessions as you both have said will really make your progress much much faster.

I used to give drumming lessons and would tell my students to structure their sessions like so
-short warmup with rudiments - focus on stick technique, posture
-work on rudiments, pick on of them and master it, practice the previously learned rudiments - this “greases the groove” for your main work
-work on your goals of the week - a song, a technique, a new beat, etc
-review stuff that you’ve done in the past - keep a list of what to review so that you don’t skip it, if you don’t practice it you’ll lose it
-fun time

to be honest over half of the time I would just go and jam and have fun, but when I started teaching I was pretty adamant about the students being focused, this ended in them learning far far faster than I ever did.

Regarding goals of the week - make them varied, try different styles of music even if they aren’t something you necessarily love to listen to. Play with others and record yourself when you can too.[/quote]

Thanks for all the useful info. Good to hear from someone who has taught music. Any tips/resources for developing innate rhythm for someone who is not a drummer, but plays a highly syncopated style of music? Developing a feel for second line rhythms and all the melting pot influences that have gone into producing New Orleans style R&B seems like a whole separate instrumental study on top of everything else!

[quote]H1989S wrote:

Thanks very much for the reply. Very interesting to hear that you spend the whole practise session transcribing. How has that worked for you? What kind of progress have you made with playing by ear? It’s something I know I need to be doing, but because I can read sheet music, I kid myself that I’d make faster progress if I got technically very good first.
[/quote]

I spend the whole session because it takes me a long time to do it. If I did all the other stuff too I wouldn’t get any transcribing done. I’m getting better (IE faster and more accurate) but it’s a tough thing to learn.

Having a program that slows songs down without changing pitch is essential for this too.

I feel it has helped my playing quite a bit, and I’ve only been doing it for 6 months or so.

If you are REALLY serious about becoming a legit pianist (I know you said no desire to go pro) you need to examine just how many hours you’re practicing per day and per week. If you want to play professionally, you need to be practicing at least 3 hours every single day, otherwise don’t even bother trying. So for yourself, I would at least get in an hour every day to try and progress to a high level of proficiency.

I currently hit around 2 hours a day. I’m not looking to go ‘pro’ per say, as in I don’t intend to make my living from being a musician. I do however plan to get to the objectively very good stage as quickly as possible, and do hope one day to play in talented bands and be able to hold my own amongst talented muicians. Can I ask where the figure of three hours a day comes from? I’m not looking to disagree particularly, but it is interesting. I read an article a while back suggesting that most conservatory students had amassed an average of around 2000 hours practise each, with very little deviation from that number. Obviously, at 3 hours a day, that would suggest it is possible to get, by most standards, very good (but not brilliant) at an instrument.

[quote]Steel Nation wrote:

[quote]H1989S wrote:

Thanks very much for the reply. Very interesting to hear that you spend the whole practise session transcribing. How has that worked for you? What kind of progress have you made with playing by ear? It’s something I know I need to be doing, but because I can read sheet music, I kid myself that I’d make faster progress if I got technically very good first.
[/quote]

I spend the whole session because it takes me a long time to do it. If I did all the other stuff too I wouldn’t get any transcribing done. I’m getting better (IE faster and more accurate) but it’s a tough thing to learn.

Having a program that slows songs down without changing pitch is essential for this too.

I feel it has helped my playing quite a bit, and I’ve only been doing it for 6 months or so.
[/quote]

Thanks for answering. Confirms what I already suspected: I should be doing more transcription.

[quote]H1989S wrote:
Can I ask where the figure of three hours a day comes from? I’m not looking to disagree particularly, but it is interesting. I read an article a while back suggesting that most conservatory students had amassed an average of around 2000 hours practise each, with very little deviation from that number. Obviously, at 3 hours a day, that would suggest it is possible to get, by most standards, very good (but not brilliant) at an instrument.[/quote]
I have heard it from a few professional musicians, but the first and most important place I heard it was from the late Philip Farkas. The rules may be different for a non brass player lol, but that was just his metric. Either put in 3+ hours a day or don’t even bother, because you’re not trying. He was pretty strict, but a brilliant musician and legendary teacher.

There have been periods in my life where I have played that much (sometimes even more), but those days are long behind me. I’m lucky to get 3 hours a week now lol! But I will say it takes MUCH less work to maintain your level of mastery after having achieved it than it takes to get there in the first place.

[quote]csulli wrote:

[quote]H1989S wrote:
Can I ask where the figure of three hours a day comes from? I’m not looking to disagree particularly, but it is interesting. I read an article a while back suggesting that most conservatory students had amassed an average of around 2000 hours practise each, with very little deviation from that number. Obviously, at 3 hours a day, that would suggest it is possible to get, by most standards, very good (but not brilliant) at an instrument.[/quote]
I have heard it from a few professional musicians, but the first and most important place I heard it was from the late Philip Farkas. The rules may be different for a non brass player lol, but that was just his metric. Either put in 3+ hours a day or don’t even bother, because you’re not trying. He was pretty strict, but a brilliant musician and legendary teacher.

There have been periods in my life where I have played that much (sometimes even more), but those days are long behind me. I’m lucky to get 3 hours a week now lol! But I will say it takes MUCH less work to maintain your level of mastery after having achieved it than it takes to get there in the first place.[/quote]

That’s really interesting. Although technically that might (if the study I read was correct) mean that you can get to conservatory standard in 2 years of dedicated practise. That would be quite the incentive to put in that sort of practise!