What does it mean to practice? If you’re like me, you are happy just to have time to pick up your instrument and get a sound out of it. More often than not I’ll just play a bunch of tunes. And that’s not a bad thing at all, I suppose, but if you’re just playing aimlessly and not really paying attention to what you’re doing, is it really worth it? If you’re playing tunes incorrectly the whole time, or executing ornaments sloppily, is it really beneficial to you, or does it just make things worse?
Practice, on the other hand, is performing a skill repeatedly to perfect it, right? But you have to know what your goal is. If you have no clue what “perfect” means in your particular field, you’re shooting spitballs in the dark. And I doubt you’ll like what you see once the light is turned on. Neither will your mother, so clean that mess up!
Wow, I’m the analogy master.
But really, you need goals. Short, medium, and long-term goals. It’s kinda like life. If you’re not aiming for something you’ll be lucky to hit it. So take a few minutes to sit down with a pencil, paper, computer, whatever you have to write with, and jot down what you want to accomplish with your playing.
For example, and hypothetically speaking, let’s say I want to play fiddle at regular, full speed sessions. (This is actually true.) That would be my long-term goal. Now I have to decide what I need to do to get there.
There’s a lot involved in playing Irish music, like rolls, cuts, and intonation. Also, string crossing and figure-eight bowing patterns that happen in so many Irish tunes. As short term goals, I can set a little time aside at each practice session to work on those things.
Another short-term goal might be to work on my speed–playing regularly with a metronome, and increasing the speed gradually over multiple practice sessions.
My medium-term goal might be to learn 3 tunes that I can put together as a set, so that when I get to try my new skills out I am prepared. So I can devote a little time at each practice session to that as well.
Both the short-term and medium-term goals serve the long-term goal, obviously. It’s up to you to decide what is important to you in terms of reaching your long-term goals. You might not think that snappy rolls and cuts really matter all that much for session playing, or that you want to defer working on them so you can work with a metronome to increase your speed. Don’t set intonation practice aside though, please–no one will want to play with you if your intonation is bad.
So let’s say I get an hour to practice every day. I might break down my session like this:
INTONATION–10 minutes scales along with a recording or drone note.
ORNAMENTATION–5 minutes each rolls, cuts, trebles, slowly (15 minutes total)
BOWING–10 minutes play part of a tune that uses the figure eight bowing pattern, slowly.
TUNES–25 minutes learn/practice playing a tune, slowly (at least half-speed) focusing on the notes and intonation. Use a metronome for consistency, and increase speed regularly.
As I get better at the skills, I can change my goals. Eventually I’ll want to play the tunes adding some ornamentation, but I’ll save that for later.
Anyway, I hope this helps. I know it’s difficult to be disciplined about practice when you just want to PLAY. But there’s a difference between playing and practicing. Practice at home, play at the session. And may your practice be focused and productive–you’d be surprised how much your playing improves if you devote a little time each day to the basic skills. And furthermore, there’s already a ton of info and opinion about effective practice online and in published form, so do your own googlin’ and see what else is out there. Most of what I have written here is based on what I’ve learned online, but al ot of it is just common sense.
P.S. I recommend recording yourself as well–this can give you valuable feedback on your progress. DO IT! I do: ME ON YOUTUBE