Part of growing as a musician is practicing. There is no way around it. However, sometimes this simple word can fill us with a great deal of dread. Even for older students, sitting in front of that page full of lines, dots, and the periodic Italian word, and being expected to do anything with it can be daunting. How exactly do we go about making the lines and dots and Italian words into music? How exactly should we practice? Many students seem to approach practicing the way they approach killing a spider with a shoe. They hit is quickly and then run away screaming that it is done. Here are five tips for beginning musicians, both children and adults, which will hopefully make practicing music a more enjoyable, rewarding, and less messy experience.
Get Some Rhythm!
In my experience, rhythm is one of the most overlooked aspects of music. Think about your favorite song. Now imagine your favorite song if all the notes were played for the same duration. Chances are, it would lose a lot of what makes you like it in the first place, unless, of course, your favorite song is ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb.’ Many of my students can play or sing their assigned music with the correct pitches, but the rhythm just isn’t there. To help, count and clap before you begin playing. You clap or tap whenever you would play a note while counting out loud. For example, you have a 4/4 measure with four quarter notes. Count 1-2-3-4 while clapping those notes on 1-2-3-4. If you had half notes, you would clap twice, the first time when you said 1, the second time when you said 3. For singers, it gets turned around, and you clap a steady beat while speaking your words in rhythm.
Know Your Notes!
Attacking your music is not necessarily the best way to make friends with it. Once you are more comfortable with the rhythm, especially if you are just learning to read music, take the time to read through the notes. This way you have time to think about them and get to know them without having to stop in the middle of playing to figure out if that note is a “C” or an “E”. Do this every time before you practice, and it will soon be second nature; you won’t need to sit there puzzling over what each individual note is. Singers! Don’t be too quick to overlook this step. Editor’s note: It’s also not shameful to actually label some of the notes lying on the more extreme ledger lines. Try not to make labeling notes on the staff a long-term habit, though.
Where Are You?
Your body is integral to playing music. Instrumentalists use their bodies to play their instruments, and singers’ bodies are their instruments. Take some time before you start to play to make sure you are ready to use your body to its best advantage. If you are a singer, that means making sure you are standing or sitting in a way that doesn’t obstruct your breathing, making sure your jaw isn’t closing while you sing, and paying attention to the other things your teacher mentions, even when they aren’t there. Are you a guitarist? Great! Make sure your left hand is where it belongs on the neck and your fingers are close to the strings. Make sure your right hand is over the sound hole. Make sure your aren’t slouching. How about for pianists? Are you sitting in a way you can comfortably get to the keys? Are your fingers curved? Are you hands in the correct starting position? Making a mental checklist (or going ahead and writing a physical one with your teacher!) will help you a great deal when it comes to actually playing.
Break It Down!
I know, it took forever to actually get to the part where you play music, but you are finally here. You are comfortable with the rhythms, you are comfortable with the notes. You have made sure your hands are in the correct position or your posture is engaged to have proper breath support. You have done everything you need to do up until this point, and now you have this huge, daunting piece of music in front of you, and it looks like a very good time to panic. Don’t! Take your music a measure or two measures at a time. Play through them until you are comfortable with them. Got those two down? Excellent. Learn two more. Now put them together. Taking your music a measure or phrase at a time will help you to not be as intimidated by the music, and also will help you identify trouble areas that need more work. If you just keep playing through, you end up practicing that whole note as many times as you practice the eighth note runs. Most likely, however, those eighth notes are what are going to need a little more work.
Playing fast is very impressive. So is singing very quick passages. However, it is only impressive if the notes are correct. Play your music at a slow and steady pace. Remember all that rhythmic work you did back in step one? Don’t throw it all away! You can always speed up when you feel more comfortable with the music, but you won’t get to that level of comfort if you don’t slow down from the beginning and take your time with the music. Don’t be on the offensive and attack the music quickly and messily and then run screaming from it. Take your time to get to know the piece. Take the time to get to know your instrument and how it feels to play it. Take the time to get to know how playing music makes you feel, and you will have made an incredible investment.