July 20


What Is Your Job When Practicing?

By Keith Livingston

July 20, 2016

independent musician, mental focus, practice habits

For years, I practiced ineffectively; and because of it, I didn’t get much better at my instrument, or at singing. Why? I didn’t understand how to practice. And to understand how to practice, in order to improve quickly, it’s good to understand both the psychology of practice, and how the mind best absorbs information.

I used to practice randomly, by sitting down and playing a bunch of licks and riffs. Or, I’d rehearse songs. I didn’t really practice — I played.

Practicing Things Correctly

Your job when practicing, is twofold. You practice to give your brain repeated examples of how to do things correctly, and to emotionally connect doing things correctly, to your goals. That’s the big picture.

Your brain does its best to repeat what you feed it. And, it does its best to create what you imagine. Your job is to line those things up by practicing, and to make it feel good.

Practice Is Brain Training

But if your brain repeats what you feed it, and you make mistakes, won’t it repeat those mistakes?


And how are you going to get any better, if you don’t stretch your limits? And won’t you make mistakes, if you stretch your limits?


The trick is in how you mentally focus when you practice, and how much of each aspect of your instrument you focus on.

Let’s look at an example. . .

How To Practice

Let’s say you’ve got a difficult, fast run you’re trying to play.

Step one, is to imagine how you want it to go. Create this scenario, as richly as you can, in your mind’s eye. Be sure to include what it will sound and feel like, as you play it exactly the way you want it. In other words, a full mental representation, in all senses, just like you want it.

Step two, is to imagine, then practice one aspect of it at a time, doing it slowly enough to do it right. So, if you’re working on a difficult fingering, you play it so slowly, that you’re able to get each finger to land, exactly where you want it to, 9 out of 10 times.

Then, you focus on another aspect (let’s say it’s a guitar run, and now you’re concentrating on keeping your picking smooth). Create a rich mental representation of doing that part correctly. Then, you practice by slowing that down until you can do it relaxed, and correctly, the vast majority of the time.

You’re going to screw up every now and then. That’s ok. But you want your brain to have an overwhelming number of examples of you, doing it correctly, compared to doing it incorrectly. You’re programming. And what you program, you’ll reproduce. If you practice with a lot of mistakes, you’ll play with a lot of mistakes.

The Problem And The Solution

But here’s the problem. You need to play it fast, and you’re not training your brain to play it fast. So, every once-in-a-while, just relax into it, and go at full speed. Concentrate on the feeling of doing it fast and relaxed, and don’t worry about getting all the notes right. Have that be 5-10% of your practice.

The Messages You Send

By visualizing, you give your brain an idea of what you want it to accomplish. Your brain is teleological — it moves toward the targets you visualize.

You do the same with each aspect of playing. While you’re practicing on your left hand, you’re telling your brain to improve that aspect, and how to do it correctly. When you’re focusing on your right, you’re telling your brain what to do with that hand. When you’re focusing on speed, you’re telling your brain how to go fast.

And all the while, you’re keeping your mind emotionally connected to the goal. That’s important, because our minds tend to move toward what feels good, and away from what feels bad. So, when we visualize the end result (playing really well), and the good feelings that go along with it, we are more motivated, can concentrate better, and longer.


Keith Livingston

About the author

Keith Livingston started recording his own music in the late '70s, on a 4-track. He worked his way into live sound and studio work as an engineer -- mixing in arenas, working on projects in many major studios as a producer/engineer, and working in conjunction with an independent label.

He taught audio engineering at the Art Institute of Seattle, from 1990-1993, and in '96, contributing to authoring several college-level courses there.

He was General Manager of Радио один (Radio 1) in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Now he spends his time recording his own songs wherever he roams, and teaching others to do the same.

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