Why 5 minutes is better than 4 hours.
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When I was at school at Berklee I heard rumors of musicians practicing 4, 6, even 8 hours every day. I wasn't buying it. I always wondered how they stayed focused and worked on something productive for that length of time.
Well, they didn't. Sure, some students had material to work on, and were dedicated to perfection. They had routines and regiments to stay focused and practice efficiently. Other students though, I would see eating lunch in their practice rooms... on their phones... playing things that weren't challenging or out of their comfort zone.
Turns out 4 hours in a practice room doesn't always mean 4 hours of practicing.
After years of practice and lots of experience working on my drumming and production skills I learned that it isn't all about the time you put into your skill.
Forget 10,000 hours, here are 5 rules that have helped me keep my practice efficient:
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#1 Only practice things you might play
I saw a post the other day of a drummer showing a ridiculously hard exercise using the left foot to play syncopated 16th notes in a groove. It sounded bad, and I couldn't think of any situation where someone would want to hear that in a musical setting. Only practice things that you can use in an actual situation. Instead of creating impossible challenges for yourself that will never see the light of day, see how you can improve the things that might actually be heard by an audience.
There’s no point in being able to play 5 over 7 over 29 and a half while singing happy birthday backwards if all it does is get you kicked out of the library.
#2 Improvement should sound bad
If what you're playing sounds good, you're not practicing.
The things you work on in your practice session should be hard for you to play, in fact, you shouldn't be able to play them! That's the point! At the very least they should sound sloppy when you start working on these new skills and as you improve and polish them they should start to sound better and better.
If you spend an hour playing things you know how to play with no intention or challenge, you're just wasting time.
#3 Playing is not practicing
To me, performing songs is not practicing. Practice is like sharpening your knives and oiling the tools to get them ready to be used. Playing is using the tools.
When I perform live I have to let go of my practice mindset and let my playing just speak for itself without focusing on details as they happen. The opposite is true for practicing. You might notice that after playing the same songs over and over, your other skills start to diminish slightly. (i.e. your tools are getting soft edges!). Playing live uses a specific part of our skill set that simply doesn't compare to diligent and specific practice.
You're only using the hammer and the nails for the country gig and maybe you need to start getting the hedge-trimmers ready to go for that bluegrass gig next week. (Okay took the metaphor too far, sorry.)
#4 If you aren't improving, you aren't practicing
So how do you know if you're improving or not? You have to record yourself!
You can use plain old paper and pen, or record yourself with a microphone, or a phone, or video camera etc. It doesn't matter how, but Some kind of documentation is necessary to see if you are actually getting better at all.
Not only that, but when you're practicing you won't necessarily hear what you sound like from an outside perspective. Recording yourself and listening back will give you ears as if you were in the crowd listening to yourself playing.
If you're listening back and notice something that isn't feeling quite right, mark it down and put it on your list for the next practice.
#5 You should know what you're practicing
If you can't name what you've been working on for the last 10 minutes in your practice session, you haven't been practicing intentionally.
When I sit down at my instrument, I start with the exact same warm-up, and then choose one or two skills that I know I want to improve: Today I am going to work on slow triplet feels, and non-linear hi-hat ostinatos.
By deciding what I want to focus on, it forces me to pay attention to one single aspect of my playing and put it under the microscope. From here I usually develop specific exercises for these skills or work on implementing the specific skills into a musical setting like playing along to a song.
It's something that has taken a lot of focus, and sometimes I'll even set a timer for 5 or 10 minutes and only work on exactly one thing for the allotted time.
I hope this gives you some inspiration and direction for your next practice session. And by the way, we have a great Home Recording Guide you can download for free if you want to start recording yourself for practice with a real studio set up.