Monday, March 5, 2012

The (Wrong) "P" Word - Process vs Practice

We get lots of questions about practicing especially when new students begin at DSM or online at DLP.  Parents want to know how long their kids should practice each day and adult learners are anxious to know "how much do I need to practice to be good enough to...uh, play?".  

My answer is probably not what they expect and usually goes something like this;
To the parent - "If I'm doing my job then your child will enjoy playing music and the chances are he'll make time to explore our material and practice on his own." 

To the adult - "How about we focus on learning these very first few basic concepts and see how it goes at our next lesson?" 

Folks sometimes mention that mythical "half hour a day" rule, but I rarely budge. My reply usually goes something like; "Let's see, it's our first lesson, we learned how to put the instrument together and made a little noise.  We introduced some musical concepts and there are a few things to review before next week. That shouldn't take too long."  

Still, parents and adult students who have armed themselves with information like the Mozart Effect or the "10,000 hour rule" (attributed most recently to Malcolm Gladwell) sometimes put emphasis on the wrong P word.  Read on...

In the book OutliersMalcolm Gladwell looks at the factors that contribute to high levels of success in a wide array of disciplines. He studies hockey stars, computer programmers, scientists, and musicians, among others, and boils down his findings to the much ballyhooed '10,000 hour' rule.  i.e. "The key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours."

For his musical example, Gladwell cites the Beatles. He learned that the lads had performed live in Hamburg, Germany over 1,200 times between 1960 and 1964, and thus easily reached the mystical 10,000 hours of playing time before they returned to Liverpool (and ensuing critical acclaim). But hey, these are THE BEATLES for gosh sake!  I reckon they may have been just as fun and 'good' on their 200th gig as they were by the time they reached the Ed Sullivan show.

It's tough to argue with the basic premise of Gladwell's findings, after-all, it's not rocket science.The more you work at a task, the better you will become at it.  But as one of my esteemed colleagues (Gary Feltner) said when I told him I was writing this blog, "Some students can get a ton accomplished in one short practice session while others labor on with little progress to show for their work." Besides, not every student aspires to play Carnegie Hall. Most just want to reach a level of proficiency and understanding of their chosen instrument and genre. If that's you, then here are 3 basic tips to keep you on your path.

1. Concentrate on the PROCESS not the end result.  This was one of the main points in Gary Marcus's book Guitar Zero.  After having some success at the game Guitar Hero, he decided to see if his mad skills might translate over to 'real' guitar playing.  His words of wisdom to other learners? "Enjoy the journey and don't fixate on the destination". 

2. If you take lessons, attend them whether you practice during the week or not!  I can't tell you how many students (mostly adults) completely undermine their progress because they fear they are not prepared for their weekly lesson.  A good educator knows what you need and will present ideas for you to review so that you can carry on. Of course it's great when students get some practice time on their instrument, but it should not be a determining factor as to whether a lesson is attended or not. 

3. When you DO have time to practice, make it count!  A good instructor will provide you with a set of clear goals after each session (a really good instructor will document those goals for you after every lesson).  I encourage students to keep their instrument out and 'in sight' at home,  if it's visible you'll be more apt to tinker with it now and again. A few minutes of playing can really go a long way and there's no need to skip it altogether if you feel like you don't have a predetermined amount of time available. Every little bit helps!