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Music Life: 02 - How NOT to Practice
By Brian Donovan - 05/12/2008 - 11:26 PM EDT

Last time I told you to go out and live your life.  I told you that life was not a hindrance that interfered with your music, but a means of giving you what you need to be a better creator.  Which leads me to our next topic:  How NOT to practice so much, and be 'okay' with it.

"Hmmmm, what kind of column is this anyway?" you might be wondering.  "First, this guy tells us not to sit around creating all day, then he tells us not to practice.  If I want to be better, I HAVE to put the time in!"  Ahhhh, but I never said not to put the time in...what I'm saying is to be more efficient about it.  In terms of your instrument, the more efficient you are with your practicing, the easier it is to be okay with yourself during times when you are not practicing.

And here's how to do it:
When I sit down to practice, I have a goal.  And I don't mean "I'm gonna be a rock star!" - that's not a practice goal, it's an end result.  Or, "I'm gonna become the fastest player" - too vague and unrealistic for one session.  Have you ever practiced so much that you felt mentally fatigued?  But when you look back at your practice time, you don't feel like you got anything done?  See, what you're dealing with when you sit down to practice is a huge release of creativity; whether you believe it or not.  So, the fatigue comes about by you spending up all of your creativity in one session.  Usually, this happens before you meet your specific goal.

So, as an example this month, I've listed the goals I've chosen for myself LONG BEFORE I ever enter my studio to do ANYTHING:

2009: "write, arrange and perform acoustic drums, acoustic piano, acoustic guitar and all vocals on the recording of my next CD."
Knowing where I am currently with these goals, and weighing that against where I want to be, provides me with a very clear direction to go in.  That makes it easy for me to outline my goals for *this* year:

2008: "build foundation to be prepared for my 2009 goal."
    practice left hand agility
    learn, and become comfortable with, the fingerings for these chord qualities in all 12 keys:
    learn how to write rich, pop/rock vocal harmonies
    grooves, grooves, grooves

Now, as some of you may know, I'm a multi-instrumentalist, yet primarily a guitarist and vocalist.  So why are there no guitar goals on here?  Simply, I want to become better at my other instruments.  I'll still practice my guitar, but to add a goal, I felt, would be too much.  Because remember, simply playing your instrument well, every time you sit down, WILL make you better.  I have gigs throughout the year anyway that will keep me playing my guitar and learning new songs.  That alone will be enough to keep my chops tightened up.

So why would I want you to be okay with not practicing so often?  Because there will come a point when you just won't be able to sit down with your instrument and practice.  And that time can come in many forms: you'll be on a plane or in a van traveling to your next're in a hotel room...or even, it's friday, and your non-musical friend has invited you over for dinner.  If you have wasted your practice time for that day, or just don't feel like you've accomplished something with your last practice, you might be beating yourself up because of it, quite simply, "because the time I spend with my friends could be used to practice more."  Now, you're not living your life again...and we don't want that...

So, now that I have my goals set out for the year, how do I stay on target?  How do I make sure that every time I sit down to practice, I feel like I've gotten closer to reaching my goal?  As you'll see in a moment, it's easy, but remember that you ALWAYS need to satisfy 2 needs when you practice: 1. learn something AND 2. enjoy yourself.  Let's use my goals for this year as an example:

It's Tuesday, and I have a lot of work to do on a new project that I'm writing songs for.  The deadline is tight (Thanks Mr. Producer) and doesn't leave much room for lunch, much less practicing for some other project I plan on doing a year from now.  But, I've managed to find a little time, say, 10 minutes, while my computer does some heavy processing or something, and I sit down at one instrument:

Piano: First and foremost, I decide.  I decide what I want to accomplish in the next few minutes.  Like, with 10 minutes (3-5 of which are warm-up, I can easily focus on learning a new left hand lick.  Like 'Linus & Lucy' by the Vince Guaraldi Trio.  (Also known as the Charlie Brown Theme.)  Now, with that goal set in my head, I'll warm-up by playing anything I want for a few minutes.  Like an easy song I like, something that's running through my mind, or just jamming to see what comes out.  That's the "enjoy myself" part.  (Of course if while I'm jammin' I get a cool idea, I could easily get sucked into a creative mood and not get practice done.  So be careful with that one.  Everyone's different.  You'll need ways to keep yourself on track.  And of course I can help with that too, so we'll talk about that in the future as well.)  Now, after a predefined amount of time, like "one song" or "3 minutes" I'll take out the sheet music or the mp3 and get the lick that I want to learn into my head.  In this case, just the first verse of the song.

I start with the left hand, and peck out the notes very slowly to make sure I have them correct.  Once I'm sure that I do, I'll slowly speed up my tempo.  The idea here is that if you can play it slow, your muscles then know exactly where to confidently go when you speed up.  (Another topic for the future.)  Then I focus on the melody and figure out exactly where the right hand notes fall in relation to the left hand notes.  That enables me to forget the right hand (my strong hand) completely, as long as I know where the notes are supposed to be.  And I'll speed that up slowly for the next 2 minutes or so, as much as I can.

And there you have it, one practice session.  By now, surely 10 minutes have passed, and I have confidently put the notes under my fingers.  Next time I sit down, I'll be able to work on speeding this lick up even more.  AND, more importantly, I will feel for the rest of the day like I have accomplished something with the very limited amount of time that I had to work with.  It totally helps me get closer to achieving my 2009 goal of becoming more proficient to: "play piano for the recording of my next CD," AND the 2008 goal as well: "left hand agility."

Of course, there are 3 other instruments that I would LOVE to practice today, but as long as I didn't blow off all of them for my immediate work schedule, I'm moving closer to the end result I'm looking for.  And you will too.

Until then, appreciate the horizon...

Brian Donovan is a songwriter in Los Angeles, CA, graduate of Berklee College of Music and has been working in the music industry for over 12 years.  Check out his new CD, Mugu Point, at his website:

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