Practicing: measuring progress

After reading Dr. Noa Kageyama’s excellent article on how much musicians should practice (“How Many Hours a Day Should You Practice?, www.bulletproofmusician.com), the question occurred to me: besides measuring quantity when it comes to practicing, how do we measure the quality of our practice? Dr. Kageyama begins to address this in his article. He makes the distinction between mindless and deliberate practicing. Obviously, we want to aim for deliberate practicing.

But, practically speaking, what does that mean?

I don’t claim to have a perfect system at this point, but here are some initial thoughts:

– Breakthrough days: These are perfect practice days. You discover that you’ve nailed that really technically difficult passage. Your etudes are flawless. Your technical warm-up is a breeze. Your tone is beautiful. Sadly, these days are few and far between. It’s easy to measure your progress on these days because you’ve mastered music that previously was a challenge.

Otherwise, if the stars and planets haven’t aligned to create the conditions for a breakthrough day:

– Metronome markings: This is a pretty simple way to measure progress, especially in technical repertoire passages, etudes, or technical studies. Being able to play something a few clicks faster than you could at the beginning of your practice session is a pretty good indication of progress.

– Being able to play longer passages in a work: Maybe you could play only small portions of a work previously. Maybe you could only make it through one movement before you felt fatigued or lost focus. Suddenly, you can make it through the entire piece successfully. This is a positive sign, especially if you are getting close to a recital date.

– Improvement in tone quality: This issue becomes more subjective. Recording yourself, an eye-opening experience, is a great way to hear what your audience is hearing. The sound from the performer’s side of the instrument can be vastly different from what the sound is by the time it reaches the audience. Maybe you’ve been working on tone and you *think* it’s clearer, more resonant, more focused, and so on. Check it with your recording device.

There are so many other aspects of our playing that are difficult, if not impossible, to measure. Tone color, phrasing, and rubato come to mind. How do we measure progress here? Is it simply enough to put in the practice time and wait for the next breakthrough day?

Comments welcome!

One thought on “Practicing: measuring progress

  1. Great post.

    More and more, I use recording to “measure” all of these things, and more. I’ll make a quick recording of a whole piece or movement, listen to it, and jot down the three or four things that I’m least satisfied with. They might be specific things (“this one note is flat”) or general things (“the piece feels a little lazy”). I’ll spend my practice session working on those things, then record again and make another list. Sometimes the same things keep reappearing on my list, and sometimes they get replaced with new things. Either way, I just focus on the current biggest problems until they’re no longer the current biggest problems. Triage practicing.

    Is it simply enough to put in the practice time and wait for the next breakthrough day?

    I’m not sure I have breakthrough days. Maybe once in a great while. So most days I do just put in the time, and count on improvement happening over the long term. I’ve tried in the past to lock myself in a room and fix some flaw in my technique (for example), and have never had success with it. But if I can get in ten minutes of Taffanel & Gaubert most days for the next few months, I’ll fix that problem and a bunch of others.

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