Practice makes better ... eventually
Practice is an interesting thing, there are good ways and bad ways to do it, there are also different opinions on what is the best way. When you take up something new there is a steep learning curve, everything is uncharted territory. as you get better at it, the basic elements you learnt at the start become easier, even second nature, that you no longer think of them. This improvement continues more gradually until you reach a certain point where you can achieve many things, albeit in a mediocre way, with little to no practice. Of course this happens slowly over time, and along the way somewhere you lose the ability to practice with the same attention and vigour as when you started.
I have come to this realisation myself over the last 12 or so months, a somewhat rude awakening, I knew deep down that I was not practicing to the best of my ability, but most of what I played was 'good enough' with the bare minimum of work, my repertoire I kept to the same old favourites I had played for years.
It wasn't until I found myself in the situation of wanting to tackle some much more complex repertoire, and simultaneously (for an entirely different project) needing to learn music by ear and improvise, that I realised I needed to brush up on my practice technique and give it the time that it needed, rather than allocating arbitrary amounts of time I felt I could reasonably take out of my schedule.
In concentrating my efforts on quality practice where it was needed, and no longer simply running through from the top every time, religious use of a metronome, meticulously learning small chunks at a time and really listening to the quality and intonation of each and every note, practice time can easily expand to several hours at a time. My concentration span quickly grew and so long as my hands could hold out I can keep going to a point where improvement has plateaud for the day. Very quickly the results of this quality practice have shown a vast improvement over the years of mediocrity that preceded it.
Quality practice is as much psychological as physical. Listen intently to everything that you play, hold yourself to the highest of standards. Perfection is generally impossible to achieve however it makes for an ideal target point. I think this is hardest to instil in younger people, children do need encouragement and can easily become disenchanted with music if they feel they are not improving, they often need instant gratification of some kind or else it becomes too hard and they can get bored. Having said this though, constant praise is not the answer here either, there needs to be a balance where a job well done is recognised but equally where areas for improvement are kindly pointed out otherwise in the long term the student will not develop the self criticism necessary to achieve greater things.
A lot of what is needed in good practice is down to mind over matter. Keep bringing your concentration back to what you are trying to achieve. Only practice as long as you can maintain your full attention on the notes you are working on. In every practice session the improvement of the technique or passage you are trying to perfect plateaus at some point. You must pay attention and notice when this occurs, move on to a different passage and come back to it later. And never try to run before you can walk. Having recently taken the step to relearn the piano as part of becoming a better musician, I know full well the frustration when you hit a road block and suddenly it gets hard. Take a breath, slow it down, baby steps, it will come eventually.
Most of all enjoy it. Playing music is amazing, but we all have to practice constantly to play our best. It is a life long journey. Relish every improvement, every notch up on the metronome, let yourself take great satisfaction for each passage mastered, but at the same time being aware that is is never really mastered - 'you've got the notes, now work on the tone'. Be sure to never get complacent, and know that the sky is the limit and each day of good practice you are one step closer.
The next time I will talk about what in my experience are the best ways to approach practicing.