Recently on a Facebook group thread I read a comment that said: “practising is unnecessary if true learning occurs. What we know how to do we know how to do”.

OK, so it seems that having learned a skill in the past that skill does not need practising again. Why do I disagree with this? I’m expert at practising and I have had to learn hundreds of pieces extremely quickly. There’s a difference between learning an isolated skill and learning how to apply it to different situations – this is what practice for a professional really is.

My own experience

Here are a couple of examples of learning an isolated skill from my own life.

When I was in college I learned the skill of piano playing and accompanying to a very high level – I was a national competition prizewinner at 21. In 1985 I applied that skill to a flute and piano piece – the Reinecke Sonata – for a prestigious performance at the Principal’s Concert.

Let’s follow the idea of “what we know how to do we know how to do”. Back in 1985 I learned that skill and that piece well enough to be chosen as a premier musician in the Principal’s “best in year” concert.

Jump to 2018 – I’m still giving public performances, I still know what to do. So when I come to play that piece in concert I should have been able to play it to the same standard I played 33 years before with no practising.

Guess what? I couldn’t.

I knew exactly what I wanted the sound to be, what the phrasing was, what the notes should be, and I really resonated with the piece itself, but my fingers just wouldn’t play all the notes.

If we use a “riding a bike” analogy, while I understood where my feet went, how to pedal and the route I needed to take, I had to rebuild the ability to remain balanced on 2 wheels, the stamina for all those hills, and the finesse to take my corners neatly.

And guess what solved it? Practising. One afternoon of practising (I said I was an expert) and I could do it. No amount of knowing the piece, loving it, understanding it, cherishing my talent or skill set, replaces actual physical muscle and brain work and coordination. I included repetition and a whole host of other practice techniques to get that piece to concert standard again. More on those later.

Revisiting my first music college days

Here’s another example. You may not know that I began my music-college-life as a first-study oboist. I performed professionally on the oboe until 1988, then stopped playing.

In 2017, 29 years later, I had the opportunity to play the oboe again on an oboe course. I picked it up, knew exactly which piece I was going to play, knew where to put my fingers, what the embouchure needed to be, and I started to play.

Within 5 notes I knew that not only could I not make the sound I used to make, I actually couldn’t remember oboe fingering. Bear in mind I used to play complex oboe concertos in concerts, and I couldn’t even remember the fingering for a C major scale.

So much for “what we know how to do we know how to do”.

 

What is practising?

Let’s break down what practising is. It’s embedding a skill, finding and developing a muscle memory, a sound memory, a feel memory (actually a brain path since muscles/sounds/feels don’t have memories). It includes repetition. It includes experimentation, it includes conscious thought, it includes conscious listening and a whole raft of other existing skills.

The thing is, I know how to practise. Not only am I a good sightreader (a skill that needs constant practising to maintain, by the way) but I know how to break down a task into its component parts, work those parts individually then put them back together in the context of the piece.

Here’s what I do to practise a piano piece:

  1. If I’m going to play a piece for a concert, I’ll play and sing through it once, as much as I can without stopping. This gives me an overview of the piece and also highlights the parts I can already play (well, busk) and the parts that are tricky or beyond me at the moment.
    Incidentally, I sing through as much as I can for two reasons – singing is a visceral action that helps me embed phrases and “breathing” in a particular way. And I’m often playing instrumental duo or trio pieces so I sing the instrumental parts to discover what they’re doing and how I have to coordinate with them.
  2. Then I’ll ignore the bits I can play and spend 10 minutes working the patterns of the bits I can’t yet play. It may be that I don’t understand the harmonic pattern, or the rhythm, or the shape of the phrase, or how I can move between the notes or the words.
  3. Next, I’ll put it all back into context and have a quick play through again, noticing if anything has got easier. Then I might work a song or movement from the end backwards. This means taking the final phrase and performing it, then going back another phrase and performing to the end, then going back another phrase and performing to the end etc.
  4. Then I might do a slow-run, setting a metronome to a MUCH slower speed than the piece’s performance speed. The goal here is simply to perform the piece without stopping, without any hiccups – to just keep going at a speed that is manageable. Again I’m noticing where the problem areas lie, so I can focus on them individually later on.
  5. Then I’ll stop.

Because sometimes your brain needs to work its magic away from the music or the physical skill practice.

Rinse and repeat.

How to practise a song

Practising a song works in the same way, but with a few additions.

Since you have to make all the notes yourself (rather than seeing them on a keyboard in front of you), the first thing is to slide around all the notes in the song. A hum will do, but a tiny “er” vowel (the schwa) seems to work better for me. The most important thing is to properly slide between the notes. The voice is a sliding instrument and by doing this you are ‘programming’ not only the notes but the intervals. You’ll soon notice the tricky jumps or high/low-lying lines. You’ll also discover places to breathe (where you can and where you must).

Next, I might sing the words on one note. This is an odd technique if you haven’t done it before, but it helps you understand the relationship between consonants and vowels (and how long/short you want the latter to be), without getting involved in pitch changes. It takes a couple of minutes and can have a major knock-on effect.

After that, I might jump straight to singing the song with the words in context, or I might just slide around, but using the vowels of each word as they appear. This helps me not only to place vowels in the right context, but also to notice if it’s the consonants that cause problems with leaps or particular notes.

Then I’ll sing the song through exactly as it’s written (or recorded) and notice what’s happening.

Dealing with a problem note

If there’s a problem note here’s how I might break that problem down:

  1. Is it the vowel shape? Change the vowel in the word to something brighter (eh) or darker (aw) – you’ll end up with a nonsense word but it will tell you if the vowel shape/type affects your ability to sing it (fight, fet, fawt).
  2. Is it a diphthong (fight)? Work out what the two sounds are you’re supposed to be singing (in this case in standard English it’s roughly the vowels in “cat” “kit”. Then work out when you’re going to change from to the other (early, late, slow, fast).
  3. Is it the consonant(s)? Notice whether you’ve got voiced or unvoiced consonants at the beginning of the end as it’ll make a difference. If it’s a voiced consonant, try pitching the voicing first on the note you’re heading to, then underneath the note you’re heading to. Which works best?
    If it’s an unvoiced consonant, try increasing the length of the consonant (ffffffight)
  4. Context! What comes before and after it? Can you separate the word from the one before, or glide from the previous into the next?
    Ultimately are you practising what works best for you on that word on that note in that context?

I go into a lot more detail about how to deal with tricky notes in a song in my article on belting the money note here Belting the money note

 

So do I practise?

You betcha.

Do I practise every day? No.

Do I practise scales and arpeggios? Yes, when they are part of the piece I’m working on (using the patterns in the piece) and no if they’re not.

Can I stop practising if “true learning occurs”?

In the words of Eliza Dolittle: “Garn!”

 

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