Over the last two weeks, I've been talking about the importance of mastery in learning music. Today I want to look at practical ways to work towards mastery in our practice and if you want to catch up on the previous couple of posts to understand where I'm coming from and why I think this is so important, you can do so by clicking here and then here.

Having said that, this quote from the last post is a pretty good summary of the main point I'm making:

When playing, many of us suffer from knowing a lot more that we can execute; our understanding and theoretical knowledge of what is possible in the music exceed our ability to put those concepts into practice.

My contention is that, in our hurry to get better, there are plenty of things that we manage to half-learn and almost master. We can talk a good fight on a lot of things, but we can't always back up the talk when it's actually time to perform.

When we try to play things in our improvising that we have only half-absorbed, or have grasped theoretically but not practically, it's not surprising that what comes out is only an approximation of the sound we are attempting to make. Whenever we play material that we have not completely mastered, we almost never sound good.

However, it's also crucial to understand that this doesn't mean that we should restrict ourselves only to playing licks and pre-rehearsed phrases when improvising. Instead it means that we have to have mastered the resources that we are going to use in that improvisation; in other words the component parts that we use to build our phrases – everything from scales and arpeggios to swing feel and rhythmic facility.

In my experience, there are three reasons that we don't quite master material.

  1. Too much material is practised
  2. Material is not absorbed thoroughly before moving on
  3. The material is either not practised to a high enough standard or is not assessed sufficiently objectively or accurately.

Here are some recommendations to counteract these three root causes and start working towards mastery.

Read my post on how to practise

I wrote this post a good while back but understanding the difference between practising and playing is both important generally and in the context of the rest of the tips in this post. Click here if you haven't already read it - the link will open in a new window/tab so you can come back and read the rest of this post afterwards.

Practise less material

When we bite off more than we can chew, it becomes impossible to practice the material thoroughly enough to reach the point of mastery. This normally happens either because we're in a hurry to get better or because we think we should be doing certain things.

A good example of this is feeling like we have to practise material in all the keys. Have you ever resolved that you're going to play everything in every key, started to take something through the cycle of fifths, got stuck about halfway round and ended up abandoning that thing completely?

By trying to do the thing you think you 'should' be doing, you actually thoroughly absorb nothing. Even worse is that if this has happened to you, you probably hadn't mastered the material completely in the keys that you did manage to get through. Not only did you achieve very little in exchange for a lot of effort, but you probably found the process depressing and demotivating.

What happened is that you spent too much time in the unpleasant 'practising' zone and, because you were trying to accomplish too much, you weren't able to move the material into the 'playing' zone before you lost interest. We're all prepared to put up with a certain amount of unpleasant practising if we get the pay-off of being able to play something, but if it takes too long because we're doing too much, we lose heart and give up.

By focusing on less material, we can transform stuff we're practising into stuff we can play much more quickly and so we stand much more chance of truly mastering it.

Determine what mastery actually means

I would say that something is truly mastered when you can play it easily and well consistently. The word 'consistently' is important here because there are often plenty of things that we can play well sometimes, or a percentage of the time. With those things, it's easy to trick ourselves into believing we have them mastered and when they don't come out right, that's just a 'hiccup' or a 'one-off' mistake. It's surprisingly easy to play something 10 times in a row and make the same 'one-off' mistake 5 times!

A good way to make sure that you are truly mastering things is to compare new material to other material that you are certain you have mastered. For example, let's say you're working on melodic minor scales; you can determine that they are mastered when you can play each one as easily as you can C major. If any melodic minor scale is even remotely harder than a C major scale then you haven't mastered it yet.

Don't be fooled into thinking that if things are theoretically more complex, then they're supposed to be harder to play. It's true that more complex material may take longer to learn, but the end result should be that it's as easy to play that material as it is anything else on your instrument. Do you think that John Coltrane thought that B major was a 'harder' scale to play than C major?

Nor should we.

Don't move on until something is mastered

It's so tempting to rush ahead because we want to get better so badly and we're in a big hurry. However, moving on too soon is a guaranteed path to approximation. Again, we have to be careful here because it can be easy to trick ourselves into thinking we can play stuff when we don't have it down yet at all. I watch my students doing this in nearly every lesson I teach.

When they're first learning something, such as the opening four-bar phrase of piece, they will play it incorrectly, say, five times in a row. On the sixth time they get it right and so they start to go on to the next four bars. When they return to those opening bars, they will be frustrated that they can't play them perfectly and may start to give themselves a hard time, thinking 'I could do this before'.

The reality here, as I am always quick to point out, is that if they play something incorrectly five times and correctly the sixth time, the next time they play that passage they have a one in six chance of playing it right.

Just because they play something perfectly once, that does not mean that they will be able to do it every time. When they can do it every time, it is mastered. When they can only do it some of the time, or even most of the time, it is not.

Slow down

In order to reach the level of consistency that denotes mastery, you have to do the same things every time. Mastery in music has very little to do with the conscious, analytical, thinking mind. Once we have mastered something we rely on our subconscious and muscle memory to handle the technical demands of execution.

Have you ever played something brilliantly at home only to mess it up when you had to play it in front of other people? If I had a pound for every time a student has said to me 'I could play this last night at home' I'd be a very rich man!

Usually this happens because the pressure we put ourselves under when playing for others causes our conscious mind to want to be in charge and it refuses to delegate responsibility and let the body get on with what it needs to do. Unfortunately, there is too much going on in the process of playing music to be thinking about the mechanics of execution and the conscious mind just can't deal with it in real time.

In this situation, that bit of our brain is like the control-freak department manager who, despite knowing less about a particular aspect of the job than his subordinates, starts interfering and telling them what to do and then wonders why things go horribly wrong!

In order for our playing to be rock solid and foolproof, we need to program our body to make the same movements in the same way over and over again so that despite our needy conscious brain trying to take charge, it's almost impossible for the body to do anything differently and we still execute the material well.

They only way to do this is to practise slowly and consistently. It's easy to get excited and try and speed things up before they're ready, but if you do that too soon you won't be programming the muscle memory with the consistency of movement that it needs.

For example, as a pianist, it's crucial to determine the best fingering for a passage and then stick to it. If I try to speed it up before it's ready and then end up using different fingers in the heat of the moment, I have simply offered the muscle memory another possibility and reduced the likelihood of playing it correctly next time.

Similarly to the situation I described earlier, let's say I practise something slowly and play it perfectly with the correct fingering three times. I then try and speed it up too soon and so I have to improvise fingering as I play the passage faster a couple of times.

Even if I play the right notes, the chances of me playing the correct fingering the next time are now only two out of three. If I add into this the pressure of performing in front of people and my conscious mind trying to take charge, the likelihood of my making a mistake in that passage is going to be pretty high.

The quickest way to mastery is to practise something as slowly as it needs to be for you to play it perfectly – both in terms of notes and technique. If you don't practise slowly enough, you won't be able to make the same movements each time and it's going to take much longer to reach mastery. For a pianist that might mean playing with the correct fingering, for a horn player it could be the correct breathing, tonguing or slurring, for a guitarist it could be making the correct up-strokes and down-strokes with the pick and so on.

Whatever the technical demands specific to your instrument are, the idea is to practise slowly enough to execute the material perfectly, training your body to make the correct movements over and over again until those movements are what's going to happen automatically whenever you try and play that material – regardless of the circumstances.

I read a story somewhere about Michael Jordan filming a commercial which called for him to miss a basket. Apparently it took him numerous takes because he just couldn't stop himself from making the shot! He had conditioned himself to put the ball through the hoop so many times that he couldn't stop doing it – even when he wanted to! That's the kind of consistency we're looking for in our musical execution.

Until next time...