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I teach in Oregon City and online videochat. I work with all ages and levels and a variety of styles. I specialize in creative exploration, the psychology of music, and conscious music practices. Visit the lessons page to learn more.

Monday, January 1, 2018

The 6 Parts of a Balanced Music Practice

Over my couple decades of teaching, I evolved a framework for balanced music practice. Recently, I've moved toward also modeling this balance within my lessons. It has six parts:
  1. Set up
  2. Warm up
  3. Repertoire
  4. New pieces
  5. Creativity
  6. Listening & Studying

Before I describe them, keep in mind that frameworks like this should be treated as guidelines, not as rigid instructions. No such framework can capture everything perfectly.

Here are descriptions of each stage:

1. Set up

This covers all the preparations and arrangements for effective practice. The list can include:
  • room set up
    • chair(s)
    • music stand
    • sound reduction
    • removing distractions
    • lighting
  • instrument set up
    • tuning
    • posture
  • computer stuff
    • speakers
    • microphones
    • software
Basically, prepare your tools and environment for effective practice time.

2. Warm up

Get going by warming up both physically and mentally. This can include:
  • music exercises
    • scales
    • chord changes
    • rhythm patterns
    • dynamics
    • etc
  • physical exercises
    • speed drills
    • stretching
    • etc
The best warmup is tailored to each student's particular situation. A good warmup provides a chance to really engage with particular skills.

If a student uses warmup time to focus on consistent tempo or playing quietly versus loudly etc., then they can later trust that those elements will be working well enough while performing more complex music that doesn't let them focus on those details.

Ideally, a warmup pushes toward a student's limits just enough to be engaging without overdoing it. It shouldn't feel boring. It should feel musical and challenging but appropriate for getting going.

Designing optimal warmups tailored to each specific case is itself a valuable skill to build. It requires understanding a student's strengths and figuring out the most musical way to practice the best next step from there.

3. Repertoire

I like to use the word "rehearse" instead of "practice" here. The repertoire stage involves really performing some music that could be done in a concert. Avoid stopping and restarting. This isn't the time for problem-solving or technical focus. This is the chance to indulge in real musical expression with something you feel confident playing.

Repertoire may be memorized or read — whichever way you'd want to actually do in concert. It can involve improvisation — if that's what you'd do in concert. It is also worth doing even if you never intend to actually perform for anyone else.

Repertoire rehearsal is about fully realizing music that you've already learned. Also, by playing your repertoire regularly, you won't forget all your pieces after learning them.

4. New pieces

This is the prototypical "practicing" most people imagine when thinking of music practice. In learning a composition or song or jam, you take it in sections, go slowly to avoid errors, fix problems, make sense of the music, etc.

5. Creativity

As one of my favorite music authors, W.A. Mathieu, tells his students: "only spend a quarter of your time on other people's music."

Creativity in music can involve reinterpreting a song, composing new music, improvising, experimenting, recording, and so on. It can involve open-ended play or carefully structured work.

6. Listening & Studying

Broadly, this stage is less about directly performing or learning to perform music. We don't necessarily need to make this part of each practice session per se, but we do want more than just having music playing in the background while we do unrelated activities.

Students should practice active listening with real attention to the music. Within the music, attention can go toward a wide range of aspects. What sounds are there? Where do chords change? What makes this section so exciting? What is it about that song that makes it so annoying?

Other studying includes reading about music, talking about music with others, and all forms of ear training. Ideally, we attend live concerts or at least watch concert videos. Take inspiration from others, and put music practice into broader life context.

Using the framework

Each student should adapt these ideas to their particular context. At the end of the day (and the end of the week), we can reflect on whether we've achieved a good balance.

In my lessons, I make sure students understand how to do each of these stages. I try to at least touch on them all in each lesson.

Set up is obvious enough but always necessary. Learning new warmup approaches can take most of a lesson, but I usually only  touch on them briefly to remind students about that stage and check that they are doing well.

When a student rehearses a repertoire piece in a lesson, I make a point of never interrupting them — it's a real concert performance. We may reflect afterwards and discuss both what went well and what to work on improving.

Working on new pieces or doing some creative composing or improvising typically take the bulk of lesson time.

I used to feel uncomfortable taking limited lesson time watching a concert video or listening to a recording, but I've found it valuable. I can (and do) send students listening assignments to go through later. However, the focus and attention is different when we share a listening experience together and can discuss it in the moment and describe how it relates to the rest of the stages.

Someday I plan to write individual articles with further details on each stage.

Please feel free to comment or contact me with thoughts or feedback. I'd love to hear how readers feel about this type of structure. Is it useful to you? Do you have other approaches to keep balanced?

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