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Pace Yourself: Thoughts on the Process of Practicing and Learning

Pace yourselfWhether you’re embarking on a long distance run, sitting down to a delicious plate of food, or facing a mountain of material to learn, keep one thing in mind: pace yourself. Establishing a good pace for learning material or practicing a new technique is extremely important, especially when you’re looking at a deadline. It’s easy to let time slip away from you, and since I’m sure that many of us could teach a college course on procrastination, it’s important to acknowledge what you need to accomplish, how long it will take, and how much time you have to do it.

A huge part of pacing yourself has to do with the actual learning process, which is quite different for everyone. For many of us, learning a song or a new theory concept is not immediate. If I could learn every song simply by playing along with it once, that would make my job a whole lot easier. Unfortunately, my brain just doesn’t work that way. By practicing along with a song or writing a quick chart for it, you may be able to recall it immediately, but the information still lies within your short-term memory. While you may have created a mental sketch for the song, and will hopefully be reminded of the bridge chords once you get there, the music hasn’t quite sunk in. Being able to recall a song a week, a month, a year, or a decade later, involves a far greater degree of learning. So, if you have a deadline for learning material, whether it’s a gig next week, an audition for your school’s jazz band, or a lesson on Tuesday afternoon, create a schedule that will help you “learn” the music in the long-term sense.

If you decide to create a schedule, set mini deadlines for yourself and consider how long it normally takes for you to learn a tune (or a few measures of a composition). Be sure to over estimate the time it will take, divide up the material, and allow for relapses, review sessions, or a few days of leeway before the actual performance or deadline. Even though you may not stick to the schedule, creating one allows you to take a more realistic approach to the material. If you have 30 songs to learn and the gig is in 10 days, you may need to take a firm approach to your practicing schedule. Change your perspective and think of learning six songs a day for five days, with two built-in days of not being able to practice, and three days of review for all of the material.

An important aspect to creating a schedule or working on material has to do with your personal method of learning, or, what you actually need to do in order to get the material to stick. For instance, working on a song and being able to play it back correctly can be somewhat deceptive. As you practice, the notes are fresh in your mind, and you start to piece together the line in your head. You may practice a song for 30 minutes, figure out the tricky parts to the bass line and be able to play it 100% correctly on your last run through. Then, when you sit down the next day, you may discover that you can’t execute the line as well as you thought. What does this mean? Practicing takes time and in fact, more time than you think. It’s natural to fall victim to this deception, because conquering a difficult exercise or piece gives us license to move on. Although you may be ready to take a break or work on something else, make sure you revisit, re-practice, and make another impression of the material. The concept of “multiple impressions” is much more than a marketing term—it’s a basic principle of learning. Pace yourself while you practice, allow for immediate success, a little bit of mental relapse, and as many impressions as possible.

Remembering a song or composition isn’t the only thing that takes time and pacing; developing technique and improving dexterity is a gradual process. Let’s say your working on a new major-scale based technique exercise (such as playing up and down the scale in thirds). An exercise like this has a few purposes: to better familiarize yourself with the scale, to develop muscle memory, and to increase finger dexterity and movement on the instrument. A common mistake that people make is they attempt to play an exercise at a faster pace than what they can comfortably (and correctly) play. Although you may want to push yourself right off the bat, remember that slow and steady wins the race. If you’re practicing with a metronome (and I hope that you are), set the tempo to “easy as pie.” As you practice the exercise, increase the tempo by small increments and continue to repeat the exercise. You’ll probably find that you will be able to surpass a tempo that gave you trouble before, simply by starting slowing and pacing yourself. As you play through the exercise multiple times, you give your fingers and your brain the ability to play, adjust, improve, and progress.

Another important reason to pace yourself as you practice technique has to do with avoiding over exertion and physical pain. A little bit of strain is manageable, but you don’t want it to result in pain or discomfort. In this way, practicing is very much like working out at the gym… you want the session to be difficult, but not damaging. Think of running on a treadmill: you may start off at a brisk walking pace, then jog, run, and return to a slow jog or walk to cool down. If you find yourself running and the pace is too much for you to handle, return to your walk. Try the same approach as you practice and give yourself license to vary your pace or to work in intervals.

And finally, no matter what you’re working on, remember that you’re human. You’ll find plenty of things that seem more worthy of your time, such as watching the Food Network or working on slap grooves. You may even get distracted by shiny objects, kittens, or trying to replicate the exact bass tone on the record. Give yourself a break now and then but try to get the most out of practicing. Trust me, you’ll do a lot better on the gig if you manage your time, pace yourself, and avoid the all-nighters.

How do you pace yourself? Tell us about it in the comments.

Photo by Grant Scollay

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