"What Should I Practice Over The Summer?"
April 14th: As the school semester is drawing to a close here in sunny Manitoba(yes, it was snowing yesterday, HA!), I have been making sure my students get their last lessons in. Many of my students have asked an intriguing question: "Professor Colligan, what should I practice over the summer?" (Intriguing because I still can't believe that anyone would call me Professor Colligan. My beloved late father used to call me "beanhead," "neversweat", and "bud", albeit endearingly. Nevertheless, the fact that I have attained any position of authority is still a surprise to me.)
Of course, I nostalgically look back on when I was really practicing in great quantities: between 1991 and 1994, when I diligently practiced the piano 4 to 8 hours a day. Luckily, I was also playing a lot of gigs, so I always had a way to apply the concepts I was practicing. I worked on a lot of different things: technique, sight reading, transcribing, rhythm, composing, and trying to learn tunes; hopefully, I could play the tunes I was learning in all keys. I was sure to keep my practicing focused, and to be conscious of the time I was spending on making my weak areas stronger, as opposed to glorifying my strengths(a common habit among young players). However, I always left time to play for fun, and especially tried to throw all the discipline to the wind when I played trio gigs: whatever happened, happened and let's just try to make music. That's pretty much what I do now.
My advice to any musician trying to make the most of his or her summer is as follows: First of all, the temptation to "take a break from music" is probably pretty strong. However, if you don't touch your instrument at all for two weeks straight(or more, God forbid), then you risk actually losing the ground that you've hopefully spent all year trying to gain. So I propose that you at least play every day, but only for very small sessions. Sure, enjoy the spring weather (or if you are in Winnipeg, get out your sled and mittens.....HA!). But just play enough to get a taste of what it feels like to play your respective instrument, and then go off and enjoy yourself. At a certain point, you'll be ready to get back into it.
What's the flat 9 on Ab7?
Also, keep in mind, you may have been one of the people complaining that "I would be practicing my instrument more, but I had so much other work to turn in for my other classes!" OK, well, now you don't have any classes, so no excuses! Get in the shed! That's why the summer vacation is actually great for practicing: so much free time! Bring an instrument to the beach if you can. At least, bring an ipod with some solos or tunes you want to learn.
The idea of breaking up your practice sessions is good because you don't want to practice tired for too long: you can actually end up doing more harm than good-physically and mentally. I find this especially if you are practicing something which requires more than one new concept. When something is really technically challenging, the best thing to do is slow it down, maybe so slow that it sounds nothing like music. If you really practice slow and focused, it gives your mind a chance to digest the information. Also, it always your body to choreograph the motions you are using.(I always give as an example of how I was trying to get my piano fingerings together. I practiced Bach Two Part Inventions slower than humanly possible. It started to really annoy anyone within earshot: "What are you doing? Can't you play some music?" Keeping the Inventions slow helped my technique tremendously. But it took a lot of concentration.)
I find oftentimes with students, and myself, that when we think we have learned a tune, or a lick, or a solo, we really haven't. We might be able to sort of play it, with a lot of slop and hesitation amongst some flashes of competency. This is because we are in a rush to play something well, and we don't give whatever it is a chance to sink in. I compare it to taking a cake out of the oven before it's done: you are so eager to eat it, but it's not fully cooked, so it doesn't taste quite right. Let your practice sit in the oven a little longer.
I've heard that as a rule, you can't play something perfectly unless you can play it 10 times in a row without mistakes. So here's my advice: whatever you are trying to play, slow it down, play it perfectly 10 times in a row, and then speed it up a few notches. Then play it 10 more times perfectly. Keep this up until it's right. Obviously, this could take time and concentration, and if you get to the 8th time and mess up, you have to go back and start all over again! Ouch! This type of practice will do wonders, but I think you can see why you wouldn't want to do that for 5 hours straight.
Another thing that helped me tremendously was keeping a practice journal. I gave all my students this year an old fashioned paper organizer so that they could write down what they practiced every day. I also made sure there was enough room for a tune list. The tune list was divided into three parts: Tunes that they knew well and were continuing to improve on, tunes that were "works in progress", and tunes that they wanted to learn. I would urge students to continue to do this throughout the summer. Learning tunes is always a great answer to the question,"What should I practice?" because there are always more tunes to learn. (See my article about Harold Mabern-he's forgotten more tunes than most of us know!)
So my advice here is not so much what to practice as it is how to practice. Practice smart, be patient, and don't overdo it. Enjoy your summer, but you can still enjoy it and get to your instrument every day.
And of course, if you are young, single, childless, and living with your parents, then realize that you'll never have this much free time again, so use it wisely. That is, if you are serious about improving....
I just had a GREAT time playing with George last week, and believe me, he's practiced what he preaches! I'm going to try to follow this advice this summer myself, on drums, harmonica, and piano.
Thanks, see you soon.