The Art of Practicing

My dulcimer students typically are pleased with their initial progress. They strum, fret, read tab, and play a couple of tunes before the end of their first workshop. Many who continue are surprised when next steps–new tunes or new fingerings for example–don’t come as quickly. “I’ve had that song for weeks!” lamented one student. “I should be able to play it up to speed by now!” So we talked about practicing routines. Turns out she was playing the whole song through time after time–because that’s what she wanted to be able to play.

But in reality, practicing is the means to that end. The work involved to get there is something all together different. Here are the steps I talk about with students to arrive at smooth melodic playing with consistent tempo:

Preview the piece: Identify the tricky spots. These may be big jumps along the fretboard, unusual rhythm patterns, or chords you’ve not played often. Isolate these and tackle them first.

Always work slowly.  When you’ve decided how slowly to start, play twice as slowly as that!

Experiment: Try different fingerings until you find something comfortable. Jot down your favorite directly on the tab.  Use pencil.  Today’s favorite may change the next time–or when you incorporate a tricky passage into the whole piece.

Contextualize:  When feeling confident about a passage, play it by including it as part of a few measures before and after.

Find the repetitions:  Most music repeats themes or phrases. Learn each one once and then incorporate them whenever they appear.

Try the tune!: You’re now ready to give it a whirl–slowly!  You may find tricky spots you hadn’t noted at first.  That’s okay.  Repeat the steps above as many times as needed until you can put it all together in a way that sounds just right to you.