As soon as many of us began taking music lessons, we were taught about the magic of consistent practice. Our teachers would play recordings of great virtuosi during lessons, proclaiming that the only thing standing between us and them was an intense daily practice regime multiplied by many years. It seemed believable because few of us ever came close to living up to such ambitious practice goals. Too many conflicts came in the way: school, homework, summer vacation, friends, video games, work, illness . . . and most importantly of all, a simple lack of desire to practice that much or stay that intensely focused.
I am the first to admit that I was not a particularly virtuous practicer when I was very young. I quickly became bored with my weekly assignments, often abandoning them either favor of aimless improvisation and exercises/music I discovered myself. Some days I would practice for seven hours, and others I would not practice at all. There were even times when entire weeks would pass without me touching either of my instruments.
Surprisingly, not all hope was lost for me during those years. I loved music, and I loved it more as I grew older. I grew up in a very musical household, as both of my parents were very serious music teachers. I excelled in many ways at an early age, despite the inconsistency of my practice. In fact, that was the main argument I used to justify my inconsistent practice habits to myself, my parents and my teachers: I was still getting better all the time. In fact, I noticed that I was getting better in ways that my friends who practiced more consistently did not.
As I grew older, guilt inevitably caught up with me. I began to wonder what more consistent practicing would do for me. I reasoned that if I had gotten as far as I did practicing the way I did, just imagine how I would progress if I started practicing every day. Eventually I made a deal with my superego. I would practice a MINIMUM of 90 minutes per day per instrument, without ever skipping a day (I was in early high school around this time).
Almost immediately, I noticed a troubling pattern. I quickly and tremendously improved at the things I practiced each and every day. However, I also got worse at all the things I neglected to practice. I don’t mean that I just failed to improve at those things. I mean that I actually got worse at those things than I was before I started practicing more consistently. This was a problem because, no matter how thorough your practice sessions may be, you will always end up neglecting something.
For example, on the trombone I used to have a lot of trouble slurring upward. I often decided to work on slurring for many consecutive practice sessions. My slurs improved tremendously. However, my ability to articulate often got a lot worse. This was surprising, since my ability to articulate had previously been one of my strengths. On the piano I used to have trouble with scales and arpeggios. I spent about a month making scales and arpeggios the focus of my practice. I quickly felt as though I lost the ability to play octaves and chords.
It was frustrating that, for all of my diligent practice, I felt that I was making myself worse in many ways. As I worked on my high register, my tone would suffer. As I worked on my tone, my upper register would suffer. As I worked on playing louder, I had trouble playing softly. As I worked on playing softly, I had trouble maintaining power when I played loud. As I worked to play effortless runs, I could no longer play tremolos. It really began to feel as though I was standing still in my playing, and my musicianship suffered immensely.
I also began to notice a huge disparity in my playing from when I felt “warmed up” and when I didn’t. If I lost a day of practicing, I felt like I lost everything I had gained from the previous few weeks. I used to sound tremendously different depending on the time of day. I sounded best on the piano early in the morning and on trombone late in the afternoon. However, none of this was true when I was younger. I was able to play either instrument at anytime without much of a warm-up and sound reasonably well. I could skip a week of practicing and not notice it too much. I have the recordings to prove it.
I soon realized what all had happened. My consistent practicing caused me to depend on a very specific set of conditions in order to be able to play at my best. I depended on playing a specific instrument in a specific room at a specific time on a daily basis. If any of that varied even slightly, I had a huge problem. Before I was a consistent practicer, I was much more accustomed to adapting to a disparity of conditions. I played at random times of the day, for random amounts of time. I didn’t maintain my instrument as well either. All of these things made me more flexible and adaptable.
To manage these issues, I began experimenting with adding some inconsistency back into my practicing. I would skip practicing a random day once every two weeks or so. I would force myself to practice at different times of the day. Some days I would try for marathon practice sessions, and other days I would play for only about 25 minutes. Sometimes I would challenge myself with repertoire, and others with technique. Some days I decided to just play music I could already play.
I discovered the effects of each of these on my playing. Some of them were positive, and some of them weren’t. I realized that there was a trade-off between efficiency and flexibility. The first 30 minutes I spent working on something made it tremendously better, the second 30 minutes made it a little bit better than that, and the third 30 minutes did not help much at all. It was best to spend no longer than about 30 minutes working on something if I wasn’t getting it. I should move on to something else or quit practicing altogether.
Consistent practice makes for consistent performance under consistent circumstances. It tends to breed inflexible musicians with a few finely honed skill which can easily be disrupted when conditions aren’t ideal. A bit of inconsistency in practice habits can greatly improve a musician’s flexibility. I now advise my students to be just a bit less consistent, and a bit more persistent. We should never practice more than we can keep our full concentration. We should never practice any one aspect of playing for too long or to the exclusive of everything else. We should always strive to make everything effortless and speechlike/songlike. Video recording is one of the best practice tools anyone has ever invented!
I will end this with a quote from Jascha Heifetz, one of the greatest violinists in history who was especially known for his almost flawless technique. Heifetz was asked if he practiced six hours a day. He responded:
“I do not think I could ever have made any progress if I had practiced six hours a day. In the first place I have never believed in practicing too much—it is just as bad as practicing too little! And then there are so many other things I like to do. I am fond of reading and I like sport: tennis, golf, bicycle riding, boating, swimming, etc. Often when I am supposed to be practicing hard I am out with my camera, taking pictures; for I have become what is known as a ‘camera fiend.’ And just now I have a new car, which I have learned to drive, and which takes up a good deal of my time. I have never believed in grinding. In fact I think that if one has to work very hard to get his piece, it will show in the execution. To interpret music properly, it is necessary to eliminate mechanical difficulty; the audience should not feel the struggle of the artist with what are considered hard passages. I hardly ever practice more than three hours a day on an average, and besides, I keep my Sunday when I do not play at all, and sometimes I make an extra holiday. As to six or seven hours a day, I would not have been able to stand it at all.” —Jascha Heifetz in a 1919 interview with Frederick H. Martens