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How to Get the Most out of Your Practice Session

Building a Better Band

Tips for Building a Better Band

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Often times when we practice and rehearse, we just do so instinctively — we show up, play through our songs, maybe talk about them a bit, and then do it again. While any sort of practice and rehearsal is probably a good thing, no matter how you go about it, there is some interesting research into ways that you can do it more and less effectively.

First, let’s look at three common mistakes people make when rehearsing:

  • Thinking rehearsing more will always make you better.
  • Believing repetition is the most effective way to practice.
  • “Let’s just run through all the songs.”

These are basically the ways we’ve been taught to practice our instruments, which doesn’t mean they’re right. But they’re so ingrained in our heads that we tend to rely on them in rehearsals, too.

A few years ago, Robert Duke at the University of Texas at Austin conducted a study of pianists learning a passage of Shostakovich’s “Piano Concerto Number 1”. On the first day, Dr. Duke gave the pianists as much time as they wanted to practice the passages. On the second day, he asked participants to return (not having practiced at all in between) and play the piece 15 times straight. He then rated how well the pianists did on a number of points, including right notes, correct rhythms, tone, character, and even expressiveness of performance.

What he found was that more practice didn’t necessarily correlate with better outcomes. Nor did the number of repetitions in practice. Nor did the number of times they had played the passage correctly in practice. Instead, the best performers had done a few things differently, most noticeably:

  • Spending time anticipating, identifying, and correcting errors
  • Considering the passage as they practiced it (taking notes, humming, singing, and just perusing the music in silence)
  • Varying the tempo considerably, especially when focusing on errors
  • Focusing in on the errors until they were fixed

This research is similar to findings in other studies, many of which are presented in the book, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. One of the book’s themes is that we learn better when our minds are required to spend more effort on the thing we’re learning. Focusing in on the errors, for example, requires our minds to engage more than they do if we’re just repeating a passage mindlessly.

For bandleaders, the research offers some interesting conclusions for how we can get the most out of our rehearsals:

  • Be deliberate with your rehearsals.Make sure you have a plan each week. What do you hope to accomplish? Is it to have three new songs perfected or run one new song and resurrect two old ones? Make sure everyone is clear so you can hold yourselves accountable by the end of practice.
  • Don’t ignore errors. If there are errors, don’t just gloss over them, but rather stop and focus in on them. I know this can be hard because you don’t necessarily want to put a musician on the spot, but it will ultimately lead to everyone being more in sync.
  • Slow it down, split it up. Duke’s study found that the best performers regularly slowed down the tempo dramatically in order to correct their mistakes. For bands, it can also be really helpful to isolate the musicians having trouble (e.g., “let’s try it again with just drums and sax”).
  • Change it up. Playing the same songs over and over again allows everyone to check out mentally, which means you won’t really improve. Instead, think of ways to make that same song slightly different — maybe speed it up, or slow it down, or trade parts a bit. Tease out mistakes you make and work on them. Doing so will help everyone be even more comfortable with the song come showtime.
  • Offer feedback, but don’t go overboard. We all know that feedback is an important way to help someone learn, but, in Make It Stick, they suggest that too much immediate feedback can inhibit experimentation. Instead, build in opportunities for discussion so people don’t feel over-criticized throughout rehearsal, but will still expect comments at certain moments. A great way to do this is establish a feedback time at the end of a rehearsal or give individuals notes ahead of the next rehearsal.

What strategies have you used to make the most of your rehearsal time?

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Ian Temple

Ian is a pianist, entrepreneur and professional musician. He started Soundfly to help people really find what gets them most excited musically and pursue it. He's toured all over the world with his experimental trio Sontag Shogun. Check out his most recent course Building Blocks of Piano or follow him on Twitter at @ianrtemple.