Chipping away: Practice Takes Patience

Coming to terms with the slow process of learning and seeing the result of your work.

Choosing to take private music lessons is an investment not only of finances but also of time. Aside from the hour each week spent with the tutor, you are then responsible for reviewing the lesson concepts each day on your own. Studies show that physically complex dexterity like playing music can take up to 400 repetitions to create a single new synapse in the brain! So, associating a certain finger to a pitch, or getting a feel for what part of the bow is most suitable for bouncing on the string, will take time.

Although it is daunting to think of the commitment required to build habits, we can take comfort in that fact too. If something doesn’t seem to be better overnight, or things that improved in one practice session seem to regress when you pick up the instrument again, this is normal. Seeing our own improvement might take several weeks or even months, but when we see it, the sense of achievement is worth the effort and encourages us to do more.

Try keeping a journal of your practice sessions. Write short notes about what you have worked on, and see how the journal fills after just a week, a month and a year of work. If you ever doubt your ability to reach a goal, music or otherwise, you can take heart in your ability to commit by looking at a well-kept practice journal.

If you’ve played for long enough to have several pieces of repertoire under your belt, try going back to a piece you haven’t played in a while. You’ll be surprised how much easier it seems and how the sections that used to be difficult probably aren’t nearly so now. Though it’s difficult to see one’s day-to-day improvement, a month or a year’s worth of work will show immediately when you take out an old study form that time.

Finally, make sure to perform. If you have no platform for that, use a smartphone or a mini recorder record yourself performing in your home and watch it. All your worst habits will come out when you’re nervous, and you’ll discover many things you didn’t know you did, both good and less so. Are your movements helping or hurting the music? Is your shoulder tensing up? Do you tend to use much more or less bow than you thought? Focusing on these “invisible” habits can make your improvement much quicker, and when you record yourself again you will see visible progress. Having a bank of recordings also means you can go back and see old recordings of yourself when you wish to, especially on days when you are feeling discouraged. 

Building any habit takes time, so a series of complex habits like playing an instrument can be a lifelong commitment, but it’s worth that feeling of achievement when we see our work leading to real improvement. Any aspect of our life can improve when we exercise this type of discipline.

And with that, happy practicing!

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