While having a conversation with a fellow musician the other day, the topic of practicing flute came up. I have recently increased the time I spend working on my flute playing and when I mentioned this, my colleague asked what I was working on. My reply was that I was working on some very fundamental things in the hopes of improving my playing from the bottom up. I was about to explain that in more detail, but before I could, this other musician excitedly gave me the rundown of what he was practicing on the flute. It was basically one tone exercise followed by playing a couple of songs, once through, with tracks he’d sequenced.
This sounded like a very aimless way of practicing to me. I probably wouldn’t have felt this way if the other musician had talked about any kind of purpose for approaching the material he’d chosen or why he’d chosen that material in the first place. My main concern would be that it lacks the repetition that is needed to address and correct errors and accumulate skill.
After thinking about this for a few days, I arrived at an important conclusion. There are only a few different motives behind practicing. I think most practice could fit in one of four categories: improvement, maintenance, recreation, and uninformed influence.
- Improvement – This type of practice could be considered an active form of problem solving. In examining your playing, you’ve identified skills that you want to gain or skills that are weak. You are practicing in order to gain and improve your level of skill.
- Maintenance – This type of practice shows a commitment to maintaining the level of skills accumulated over time. More simply put, this is ‘keeping up your chops.’
- Recreation – This type of practice is done without a particular goal in mind. You play something because you like it or it makes you feel good.
- Uninformed Influence – This type of practice happens when someone works on something because they saw or heard someone else work on, but can’t identify the purpose behind it.
These are relatively simple views and they exist on a gradient. One way of practicing a piece of material could change to a different way of practicing as skill is acquired and/or insights are gained. Also, the purpose of practicing a piece of material could change over time.
In addition to this, it is unlikely that a practice session (or day’s worth of sessions) would be composed of only one type of practice. There will almost always be a mix of at least two of the categories, if not three or four.
In observing these different methods of practicing, my aim is not to pass judgement on others. As I mentioned at the beginning, the other musician’s way of practicing is not how I practice, but that doesn’t make it bad. He may very well be satisfied and productive with his methods.
It is very easy to slip into a pattern of practice that lacks an awareness to purpose or direction. By taking a little time to examine how, why, and what you practice, it is possible to make some changes and have more productive practice with more satisfying results.