J. Harnum: The Practice of Practice

I have long wanted to improve my practice and routine, but never really knew where to start. After an admittedly shot-in-the-dark selection on Amazon I can confidently say that this book was exactly what I needed.In hopes that it can help you too, I’ll summarise the book’s main ideas below: speed, biology, motivation, imagination, social influence, strategy and self-reflection.

What is the ideal speed of practice?

It is easy to spend hours relentlessly practising passage work in tempo even when we know this is wasted time. Slow and deliberate practice requires time and focus, so it’s often difficult to motivate ourselves to do it. Being able to play something slowly highlights where mistakes are, and prevents them from happening in the first place.

“You’ll never make a mistake, if you never make a mistake.”

-Julius Baker

Understanding our biochemistry

Harnum talks about a lipid in our nervous system called myelin. Myelin physically reinforces learned behaviours by keeping neural synapses stuck together as we internalise habits. Its major disadvantage is that it can’t distinguish if the action we are doing is right or wrong. Therefore we must be weary of making a mistake too many times lest we learn that mistake. Recognising the subconscious work of myelin is the first step to improving our practice awareness.

Setting the right goals and motivation

We all dream big, but seldom focus on everyday achievements. When we start small and create a reachable goal, we are guaranteed success and consequently motivation to learn. Harnum calls these micro goals which connect with each other like fractals and form macro goals, our big dreams. He also encourages us to develop a growth mindset: to always seek challenge and feedback, finding deeper learning strategies and persist in times of failure. To complement this mindset, our motivation should be carefully intended on music making rather than on approval or praise.

Practising with imagination

Practice can be a tedious chore we need to complete in order to get better. However, being creative and having fun with the material transforms the way we view the practice process. When approaching a difficult passage we should use all our imagination and play it in as many different ways as we can – so slowly that it’s not recognisable, vary the rhythm, play it backwards, change the articulation, transpose it in a different key. Ability to invent the exercises will more likely lead to successful learning.

Finding social moments

Why is practice boring for so many? It is generally because we are doing it alone. We can shift our perspective by making practice more social. By surrounding ourselves with peers we are able to create an environment which allows us to improve at a faster rate. When we are in the presence of our friends we can discuss the ideas about interpretation, work slowly on a specific skill and improve our awareness in intonation, rhythm and sound production.

Devising your strategy

The time we have for practising is limited and we need to make the most of it. We should plan our session ahead, prioritising the most challenging parts that require improvement. After warming up we focus on those parts and give them full attention. We finish off with carefree and joyful music making which empowers the creativity and freedom of our musicianship.

Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.

-Carl Sandburg

What about after practice?

Reflecting on practice sessions allows us to appreciate the micro goals we achieved and can motivate us to start the next session. Harnum proposes that we often record our practice sessions to aid our assessment. He suggests that we focus on the following parameters while listening: intonation, pulse, sound production, technical precision, dynamics and interpretation. The more specific the parameters are, the more efficient our assessment will be.

This book is an absolute must read for every musician. It debunks many myths about practice and it provides a fresh perspective. I would like to thank Jonathan Harnum for his witty language, expertise in music field and all the research he has done to change my understanding of practice.

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