The Case for Active Practicing

A freshman student of mine, Henry Myers, has written an excellent article about practicing which is right on the money. Henry eloquently describes something that I am in total agreement with: too much time is wasted in the practice room. Not enough has been said and written about how to make the hours spend practicing much more fun enjoyable and productive.

Read this article and share it with your practice buddies.

Happy learning!

The Case for Active Practicing, by Henry Myers

Image of a "Not Very Ideal" Piano StudyPracticing: the word itself inspires pain, suffering, depression, boredom, angst, and turmoil; it evokes images of stern-looking students, arduously drilling a passage until they either squeeze out five consecutive successes or quit in frustration. The sheer effort that it requires seems monstrous and intimidating; the payoff, relatively small.

Predictably, it’s an activity that relatively few people enjoy.

I myself have struggled with it for most of my life. Having professional musicians for parents and an aspiring cellist for a brother, playing the cello always felt more obligatory than elective, and thus I learned to resent practicing and avoided it at all costs; subsequently, my inability to play well induced much pain during my lessons, where I was often brought to tears by my teacher (no hard feelings!)

Eventually I realized that I did, in fact, want to play the cello, and starting about 9th grade I became a practicing fiend; in the following years I would only log more and more hours. Yet I felt like the archetypal student musician (as the image so succinctly and somewhat humorously depicts). While I did improve over my high school years, I often felt that the countless hours I put in weren’t quite paying off. I tormented myself with thoughts of being inadequate, untalented, unintelligent.

Why was I so incapable of efficiency?

Truth be told, I was inefficient because in my practicing I placed repetition over thought. Compared to the sheer amount of hours I practiced, the level of brainpower that I exerted was rather underwhelming. I didn’t really have a coherent method: I just practiced somewhat aimlessly until I either hit some preplanned number of hours or drowned in frustration.

Once, during a moment of exasperation as I neared a deadline, I was told not to worry; that even if my progress seemed stagnant, if I continued to work I would eventually have an epiphanic moment where everything would come together. Instead of feeling soothed, though, I felt angry. Why can’t progress happen incrementally? Why does practicing necessarily have to be so passive? Ironically, I found the answer by examining that question.

See, the term “practicing” is deceptive. It should instead be thought of as “learning”.

This may seem like a tautology, but it really isn’t. The term “practicing” suggests repetition, while “learning” suggests the acquisition of knowledge, which is what I believe the colloquial “practicing” should be. Furthermore, “practicing” is passive; learning is active. To define the italicized terms, let us consider the mind.

Image of "Thinking out of the Box"For practical purposes, imagine that your mind is neatly divided into conscious and subconscious halves. The conscious is active; it’s basically what most people would identify as the “thinking” part, in which thoughts occur and observations are made; we control this part directly. The subconscious, is passive; it functions behind the scenes and is responsible for taking the observations made in the conscious mind and memorizing, interconnecting, and abstracting. It is also responsible for what we call “intuition”, which could be understood as unconscious reasoning. The subconscious is basically out of our control.

When we practice, we too often leave the process of abstraction entirely to our subconscious. If we keep missing a shift, for example, and try to remedy it by sheer repetition, we have to wait until our unconscious mind develops a solution based on repetitive data. However, if we instead stop to examine the problem consciously, we provide our subconscious with a variety of more helpful information that it can much more quickly extrapolate into something useful.

To be clear, I don’t advocate trying to replace your subconscious functions with your conscious functions. First, it’s impossible, and second, you WANT your subconscious to work for you! It’s incredibly powerful and capable of doing amazing things. What you don’t want is to rely entirely on it. Instead, use your conscious to guide your subconscious. The conscious part of the mind needs to play a more active role in learning.

Let’s return to the shifting example. Rather than merely attempting the shift several thousand times, ask yourself what you can learn about it. For example:

  • What do the positions that I’m shifting between feel like? What fingers are on what notes? How does the hand balance on the instrument?
  • How can I go between the two positions fluidly? How do I feel and understand the transition?
  • How can I work vibrato into my shift? How can I coordinate it into the shift?

Answering these questions involves experimenting physically, so while it’s possible to abstract something verbally about what you discover, the answer itself may be non-communicable. Eventually, this process can be automated, where solutions and ideas just occur naturally. Once you have answered these questions, i.e figured out how to improve the shift, then it’s time for repetition. Repetition is used to convince yourself that what you’re doing is correct, and to establish everything as part of a sequence of motions. In that way, repetition allows you to merge a process into a single thought.

After you finish practicing that shift, set it aside until the next time you practice. If you come back to it in an hour, you might find that you can’t exercise the ability that you worked on, that you can’t activate the mental pathways you thought were created. This doesn’t mean that your practice was lost: in fact, it probably means that your subconscious is processing it. So put it away, sleep, and give your mind time to work. When you start practicing in the morning, you might find that you know the shift better than you did before. Congratulations! Your practice was effective. It wasn’t boring at all; it was just like solving a puzzle. It was even fun. Now it’s time to start practicing again, but fortunately you’ve gained ground since yesterday and have new puzzles to solve.

It has always been the case that much of the process of learning is subconscious. However, we tend to struggle with practicing because they simply go through the motions and rely almost entirely on whatever the subconscious does to learn. What we need to be doing instead is actively using our conscious to investigate, analyze, and solve problems. Practicing shouldn’t be a mindless, repetitive exercise; it should instead be both mindful and informative. If I could leave you with a single thought, remember that practicing is learning: learning to practice is only a specialized version of learning to learn, and learning starts with thought. Remember, activity is key. Now get off your butt and go practice.

Or rather, get off your butt and go learn.

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19 Responses to The Case for Active Practicing

  1. Nancy Daby December 27, 2011 at 2:48 pm #

    Dear Prof. Jensen –

    Thank you for posting this essay by Henry Myers. Henry was a cheeky nine year old in the beginning orchestra I conducted (and still lead presently) at the Community Music School of Webster University in St. Louis. It has been so wonderful to watch him grow up to be such a fine cellist/musician. This article reads as though it has been written by a seasoned teacher, not a college freshman. I hope that Henry contemplates teaching as part of his musical career.

    As an aside, the year Henry was in my String Ensemble the cello section also included Richard Mazuski (freshman student of yours, I believe) and Daniel Kopp, who is a freshman at Rice University, studying with Norman Fischer. An excellent group of nine year old musicians! I love my job, needless to say…

  2. Gary Lee December 27, 2011 at 7:34 pm #

    Thanks for the post. I saw it on Nancy Daby’s Facebook status. I try to encourage my cello students to “practice smart”, which may include some practicing that doesn’t have to be on the cello. Sometimes certain things are better worked out in the mind first and then applied to the cello. Rhythm can be tapped out before played so we can make sure the rhythm is correct. Too few private teachers teach students how to practice effectively.

  3. Colin Cronin December 28, 2011 at 8:13 am #

    Nancy and Gary,

    Thanks for writing to us here. Professor Jensen is currently out of the country with his family. I am passing along your comments to him. I’ve also let him know to let Henry know all of the great feedback he has been getting in this article. I agree as well that this article reads like a true professional. It is very remarkable work.

    Happy holidays to both of you!

  4. Pamela Frame December 31, 2011 at 3:06 pm #

    Excellent article! Bravo!

  5. Tom Pinit January 6, 2012 at 1:27 pm #

    This article resonates with me. As a former Suzuki violin student, I hated practicing as a child. Today, I don’t have quite the same disdain for practicing, but it still isn’t at the top of my to-do list. I do find that practicing with others in my music groups is more enjoyable than locking myself in my bedroom and plunking away on difficult passages. Interesting theory about conscious practicing and breaking down problems through analysis rather than sheer repetition. Thanks!

    • Colin Cronin January 7, 2012 at 9:17 pm #

      I think it’s something all people struggle with, especially younger kids. I can remember watching Wynston Marsalis’ “Tackling the Practice Monster” when I was very young. Although we mature as students and musicians and recognize the value of dedicated practice, it can even be tough for professionals. That is why this article has such importance when it comes to how to approach practice and make it efficient and effective.

  6. Manon January 10, 2012 at 3:36 pm #

    I find that it is much easier to engage our subconscious mind than most people think. The subconscious always wins! It can be as simple as learning how to go into a calmer, relaxed state of mind … technically a trance … and then asking the right question. One can gain more focus and insight into the passage in question. Letting the subconscious figure it out is a great way to gain control over it’s amazing gift to us. In addition, the relaxed state of mind certainly supports better technique and reduces the risk of repetitive injury that can easily set in when practicing when the muscles are tense.

  7. Goodnight Sam November 6, 2013 at 5:39 pm #

    Great post! My problem is finding the time to practice 🙁

  8. Edward Motter-Vlahakos June 30, 2014 at 4:12 pm #

    Sometimes, for me, getting students the music they want entails me transcribing a particular pop song for them, that involves a lot of decisions for me about trying to be true to the original melody so the students can play along with the track (key, rhythm, register, etc) or transpose the piece to an easier key and with a simplified rhythm which will enable them to play it more easily. Sometimes giving them a very difficult transcription which is clearly beyond their current abilities is an excellent motivator, and sometimes it isnt, every student is a unique individual who responds to a wide range of positive or negative reinforcements- some will rise to the challenge and work their butts off to be able to conquer the piece and some will curl up in a little tearful ball and quit. One parent came up with an excellent motivator for her daughter (who was a very commercially minded girl), she paid her $5 for every day that she practiced on her own for 30 minutes or more- but at the end of the week the child had to pay for her lesson herself. Pretty quickly the student realized that if she practiced 7 days a week she would be turning a $10 profit weekly, and promptly doubled her efforts at home. Everyone is different, and part of our job as teachers is learning what makes each pupil tick, and helping them develop good discipline which will reward them with a wealth of achievements, both in music and life. This is the way we do it at my studio,… anyway…

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  11. peters June 10, 2023 at 9:44 pm #

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