Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Cold Eye of Truth: Practicing Music Objectively

One thing I've noticed about writers, musicians, and creatives of all kinds, is the way we love playing to our strengths. After all, who doesn't like to practice the things they're best at? It feels awesome, and we can ride that feeling all day. But that's not always what helps us improve the most. Yes, it's great once in a while to play the pieces we're best at, but if we want to improve, we must have the strength to zero in on our weaknesses and take a look at our practice with the cold eye of truth. But how can we do that objectively, without either beating ourselves up or inflating our egos?

1. Recordings

This is where technology comes in handy. Videos and other recordings don't lie--they give us a chance to hear or see ourselves the way an outsider does. Make frequent recordings of your playing, including your performances, whenever possible. While I usually listen to practice recordings right away, if you have a particularly emotional intense performance (an important recital, etc.), it might be better to wait a few days, then listen. That way you have enough emotional distance to listen more objectively. Likewise, I think it's a good idea to think about listening for specific details as opposed to judging your overall performance with broad generalizations, like "good" or "bad." Instead, ask yourself questions like, are there sections where my rhythm is uneven, and if so, where are they? Don't just think, "that's out of tune!" Ask yourself specifically what notes are out of tune, and are they sharp or flat, and think about what you could do to improve them. Which brings me to...

2. Use Your Tuner and Metronome!

I like to tell my students that we can debate many things in music, from Historically Informed Performance Practices to subtle interpretations of phrasing and articulation. But some things are fairly objective, and those things include rhythm and intonation (for the most part--I know there's fierce debates about equal vs. meantone temperament, but let's set that aside for the moment). The metronome and the tuner will not lie to you, but give you a fairly accurate assessment of your playing. That's valuable information that we all need!

3. Audience Feedback

Even a non-musician knows when something sounds wrong or boring. Yes, some pieces aren't for everyone and some modern music has lots of dissonance that's meant to sound "wrong." But if an audience doesn't seem interested or actively dislikes what you're doing, then you have a problem, even if the problem is choosing the wrong repertoire for that particular crowd. If the audience feedback is vague or you're not sure what they don't like, hopefully you have a video or a recording you can use to try to identify the problem yourself.     

Facing our mistakes and weaknesses is one of the hardest things that we have to do as musicians, but if we want to improve, it's one of the most necessary. 


  1. Good points! I was fortunate to have a really wonderful piano teacher growing up, and only recently have I realized how the way she taught me to practice music has been helpful in all areas of life.

    One big thing she taught me was the importance of not practicing mistakes - by which she meant making sure that your form is correct. If you practice a song over and over while slouching, for instance, or using the wrong fingering, you are not doing yourself any favors! You're just going to engrain those bad habits into your muscle memory and make yourself worse in the long run.

    You mention facing our mistakes, which reminds me of how she really worked on me to get over feeling embarrassed when I made mistakes. The only way not to make mistakes, she'd say, is not to practice!

    As a kid, of course, I did not always appreciate her rules, but now I am so grateful for all that she taught me. She truly taught me how to learn and I use her skills to this day - and not just in music!

    ~Tui, dropping by from Weekly Blog Share

    1. Those are good points, your piano teacher did you well!