In today's busy, ever changing landscape, it is of the utmost importance to make every second count; especially in the practice room. As musicians, we want the hours we spend practicing our instruments to yield the best possible results. We want the biggest bang for our buck. One of the best things we can do to get the absolute most out of our practice is practicing with purpose.
One of the most common practice mistakes I have observed is when a student rushes to achieve a lofty goal. They get so excited by the tantalizing end game of what they want to learn, and they simply skip a lot of the steps that would bring them to their goal. It is very attempting to do this and in some cases it can be a great thing to simply through yourself into the deep end of the unknown and see what happens. However, if the goal is to thoroughly digest a musical concept or technique, focused, purposeful practice is the way to go!
Let's take a look at a real life example.
Let's say a student wants to learn how to utilize the diminished scale fluently in a jazz standard.
Many students are tempted to simply go straight to the goal. When the student rushes to the final stage the results may be discouraging and actually inspire frustration! This is because the student is simply unfamiliar with the new harmonic device (in this case the diminished scale). Because the student is unfamiliar with the device, the desired results will not be achieved and the student may be discouraged that they never get better even though they practice frequently. Practicing is very similar to the process of learning a language. One needs to spend time absorbing on some basic vocabulary and grammatical norms before the formation of sentences and thoughts can be expressed. The same thing holds true to practicing music and an effective practice schedule embraces this idea.
One of the best ways to practice learning a new concept and turning it from just a theoretical idea on a page into a tool in your creative arsenal is by identifying and completing the crucial "sub goals" before the main goal is attempted and accomplished.
For example: before a player can use the diminished scale confidently on a jazz standard in a real life situation they must be able to improvise with the diminished scale over small, common progressions (like a 2-5-1). Before they can play on a 2-5-1 they need to be able to play with the diminished scale on the static chords of that progression (static minor 7 chords, static dominant chords, static major chords etc.) Before that they need to know how to use the diminished scale on the different chord qualities and before that they need to know how to play the diminished scale itself!
This reverse-engineering thought process is a great thing to do when learning a new topic:
1) Figure out what your main goal is (i.e. improvising with the diminished scale)
2) Reverse-engineer that goal in your head. Ask yourself "what are the smaller milestones that need to be achieved so I can achieve this main goal?".
3) You should end up with a relatively simple starting point. But not only that. You have a sequence of goals that form the path that, when completed, will allow you to achieve your main goal!
If this student in the example didn't know how to play the diminished scale than that would be where they should start. If they knew how to play the diminished scale but didn't know how to use it in a 2-5-1 progression this is where they should start. There will be a different starting point for every player!
The Benefits of Practicing With Purpose
Practicing is all about turning the unfamiliar into the familiar. You need to recognize what is unfamiliar to you, personally, and begin to turn those things into controllable, useful, familiar things. This can be accomplished through goal-oriented, methodical practice that takes a large goal and breaks it down into smaller, manageable goals that gradually build to the achievement of the main goal.
Also, this method makes what is practiced extremely useful. Meaning what you will play or improvise will not sound like a stiff exercise. It will become pliable and allow your creativity to utilize it to create interesting and unique sounds. But to get to that point, all of the little things need to be squared away!
Happy Practicing! Thanks for reading!