A Musical Life: The Four Types of Practice

einstein violin

I know that the most joy in my life has come to me from my violin.  Albert Einstein

Being the father of a young classical violinist is, in most cases, a situation of observe quietly and don’t give advice!  All violinists seem to be extra sensitive to comments from parents, especially dads. So I sit, enjoy the music and marvel at the continual progress. And sometimes I put on my consulting hat and try to figure things out.  One of the biggest mysteries to me is the process of practice.

Some back story might be helpful here.  My mother was a pianist, organist and choir teacher at school and our local Methodist church.  And of course, every one in the family had to have music lessons, which began with the piano.  Now in a household of four boys and one girl, getting the boys to sit still for half an hour of piano practice was nearly impossible, but somehow we survived the basics and all of us went on to play a musical instrument in our high school band: three on the trombone, one clarinet and one flute.

For the life of me I couldn’t really get into the habit of practice and after a stint in a jazz band my senior year in high school, I put my clarinet away. But here I am now watching my daughter practice the violin daily for 3-4 hours. Sometimes she even gets up at 5:30am to practice before school.

What is practice all about? And then other questions began to gnaw at me was: Are there different types of practice? What might be the value of various types of practice? How do they fit together?

The Four Types of Practice:

I am not a professional musician, so take the following as the observations of a layman (but then the Titanic was built by professionals and we know that story!).

I think there are (at least) four types of practice, and each seems to have an independent, as well as an additive purpose.

  • Practicing the Notes
  • Playing the Music
  • Performance Practice
  • Mental Practice

The first type seems to be Practicing the Notes.  That is, getting the proper intonation (sound), getting the right fingering in order to smoothly shift from one note to the next, learning the sequence of notes as intended by the composer, putting in the dynamics (crescendo, diminuendo, piano, allegro, etc.). And finally, memorizing the entire piece, putting the notes in the right place and fitting everything together.

This seems to be a largely technical skill process combined with developing physical violin practicemuscle memory.  And of course, the better the technical ability of the player the better the whole piece will come together: right notes, right dynamics, right intonation.  For those intent on playing professionally or giving solo performances, this is the important foundation step.  If the technical skills are weak, the entire playing will suffer.

But technical skill is not enough.

Robotic correctness is the last thing judges want to see or hear— William Westney

The second form of practice is Musicality.

. . don’t just memorize notes; memorize the feeling of playing them.— Madeline Bruser, The Art of Practicing

Every composer uses a musical score or composition to tell a story. The best stories are those that stir our emotions; that make us feel!  Some composers use delicate phrasing, others try to imitate the sounds of life (think of the beginning of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and how it depicts the sounds and hustle of New York City).  The job of the musician is to tell the story the composer intended in such a way that the audience is moved with feelings that last long after the final note. This is what musicians call shaping the piece, getting the phrasing to come alive.  People call this musicianship rather than playing music.

The third form of practice I call Performance Practice.

The bad part about practicing a piece of music for hours and hours and days and days is that you are the only one reacting to the sound, responding to the intonation and the musical story.  The greatest learning when practicing comes not from listening to ourselves play, but from the reactions of an audience.  Are they moved or touched by your performance? Do the hang on every note.  Does every note seem important, like the words in a story?  Is it loud enough to reach those at the back of the hall.  Do you come on stage and engage the audience or do you trudge in and just play? Can the audience tell you are engaged or do they sense that you are just “going through the emotions”?

stage frightAudience feedback is critical to hone your abilities. But the sad fact is, this is often the one type of practice that gets the least attention or time.  A performance is not just practice with more people listening.  A performance is a gift from you to the listeners and in order to master the art of performing, you have to perform.  For your parents.  For your friends.  For the school assembly.  For those at an Old Folks Home.  For your church group.  For your dog!  The value of “performance practice” is the feedback you get, both verbally and non-verbally.

I get a lot of inspiration from the audience feedback to our live shows. ~Donnie Iris

The fourth type of practice is Mental Practice.

“Think ten times, play once.”  Franz Liszt, 19th Century Hungarian Composer

A lot has been written lately about mental rehearsal. The ability to embed a piece of music or a certain gymnastic routine through being in a calm state and visualizing the activity in your “mind’s eye”.  This is a powerful form of cementing a skill or piece of music, especially since we now know that mind and body are connected.  Entering into a calm mental state and using mental rehearsal actually alters the body chemistry and helps develop and establish neuromuscular and synaptic connections and pathways.

Mental practice won’t replace physical practice, but it certainly will augment and cement the learning.  If you watched either the Summer or Winter Olympics on television you could often see high-jumpers or Giant Slalom skiers mentally rehearsing the perfect race moments before the actual event.

Putting All Four Practices Together

I also believe there is a sequence to these four types of practice and some sort of optimal percentage of overall time devoted to them.  I put this visual together to show how I think they all fit together.  Notice that mental practice is used throughout all stages from beginning to final performance.  Think of mental practice like tuning your strings.  Do it before and during every session.


So, hopefully these thoughts are of some use.

When you are having a bad day and nothing is going right. When the pressures of life are crowding in on you and you need some time by yourself . When someone, or something has made you angry. When you are bored, or when you are feeling flat or unhappy, don’t complain, just go and do some music practice. That will lift your spirits and energise you.— Ron Ottley,

John R Childress

Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, and FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution, available from Amazon in paperback and eBook formats.

See the review of LEVERAGE in The Economist (January 9, 2014.

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
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