Are You Practicing or Just Playing Around?

  1. Thom
  2. January 7, 2008 6:44 pm

You have to practice for an hour, so you pull out your piece and run through the notes as fast as you can. It sounded all right… Why don’t you play it again? Not much different than last time and still just as difficult, but you’re still putting time into it so there must be some benefit right? Are you really practicing? What is the difference anyway? When learning a new song, some of my younger students begin to get very excited and play it over and over again as fast as they can, often times missing notes. While it is fun to see the energy as the run around plucking and bowing away, it is also part of my job to help them to understand the importance taking the time to play it right.

It isn’t always about playing as fast as your can. In these two videos you will see an example of a solo by jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. The first video is an actual recording with a nifty video transcription to follow along while the second is of a robot programmed to play those same notes. While they both play the notes with perfect accuracy, one certainly has much more soul and finesse to it. Which would you guess, Mr. Coltrane, or the robot?

John Coltrane – Giant Steps

Robot – Giant Steps

Now, I’m sure with enough programming you could get that robot to sound just like Coltrane, maybe even better. However, we all can’t feed programmed music through our brain and instantly transmit those messages of 1’s and 0’s to our fingers. While playing through music with little or no intent of correct sound, intonation, articulation, etc. can be fun, it isn’t always beneficial and can sometimes be counter-productive.

As I stated in my practice makes permanent article, the way you practice is the way you’ll perform. Are you really trying to commit that difficult passage to muscle memory, or are you simply running through the notes? Part of a good practice session is to set some clear goals. What are you looking to gain? If you’re trying to play something faster, the answer is to start slow and gradually work your way up. The reason is that you need to build the proper muscle memory so that your brain, arms, and fingers all work together and have some clue of what they are doing as a whole.

How slow is slow? If you have a difficult sixteenth note section at 120 beats per minute (BPM) use your metronome, set it at 60 BPM and turn each sixteenth note into a quarter note. As you master it at this tempo, move up gradually until you hit 120 BMP again. Then, go back to 60 BMP and turn each sixteenth note into an eighth note. Once again work your way up until you can start slow again this time as sixteenth notes.


  • Playing is just that, playing
  • Playing as fast as you can may hurt your playing
  • Practice makes permanent
  • Practice includes having an agenda of what is going to get done

1 Comment

  1. nadia27oct says:
    Posted June 5, 2010 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    Wow! That robot’s performance was actually creepy… Don’t wanna hear it again unless in a horror movie.

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