In my experience as an adult learner and teacher I have found through trial and error a couple of ways to make practice fun and fruitful.
As an adult learner I have often found the frustration of knowing where I want to go but not having the patience to take the road to get there a barrier. It was not till much later in my playing and teaching career that I entered a mind set that was beneficial as both a teacher and a student of music. In this article I would like to share a couple of useful tips that have helped me and my students progress in music.
Always keep in mind the reason why you want to play
For most of the adult students I have had the pleasure of teaching, fun was the number one reason to start on a path in music. Usually what is in the way of fun is the work that is required to obtain the sound that is in our heads. This can be frustrating to some as progress, depending on what instrument one plays, can be slow. Whenever I found frustration taking over my mind, I went back to listening to music that brought me joy and gave me the reason to want to play in the first place.
Set realistic goals
Regardless of the instrument, setting gradual goals along the way of learning our instrument and music will allow our minds to have a positive experience. One does not start the trumpet by attempting to play the trumpet solo on the Beatles “Penny Lane”. For me, my trumpet journey started with a much simpler but realistic solo from the Spice Girl’s song “Too Much”. It was a 4-bar melodic solo that made sense to my ears and mind. It did not take me too long to learn the solo and as such, the reward of getting the solo correct came soon. This is important as we want to experience progression and positive outcome quickly and frequently. Learn simple 4-bar phrases and then expand from there.
Set up a practice space that is positive and supportive of your goals
My wife will confess to the fact that I might not be the most organized person in my office. It took me years to realize the benefits of having an organized space to work in. I found that leaving my instrument out and having any sheet music of songs or exercises on my music stand meant I could get to playing and practicing a lot quicker. I found at times I would set up my practice session the night before so that I could get up in the morning to a practice space that was ready to be used. Practicing in the morning for 20 minutes also meant that my mind did not have time yet to accumulate the many daily experiences that would fill it and ultimately lead to putting my practice as a secondary priority.
Warm up and slow down
I found that I was always in a rush to get from point a to point b, both when I needed to go to work and when I wanted to get to the space in my musical development that I had in mind. Practicing without warming up meant that I am ignoring the importance of getting my body and mind in a space where I can maximize my practice time. All my adult students recognized the importance of athletes warming up. Musicians are like athletes in a sense that our entire body becomes part of the instrument. The key that I was missing for many years is allowing myself to slow things down to a point where I could co-ordinate my body and mind so that both could learn the instrument together.
Use a metronome and a tuner, but sparingly
Often students would hate using the metronome and said that they found it to be a distraction more then a tool. My response was always that you would not measure a distance without a ruler and that without a ruler you would not achieve a feel for relative distance. The metronome points out a truth that some do not like, the fact that we must slow down to co-ordinate our mind and body. As an adult I am always in a rush to get to where I want to go and sometimes do not realize that important lessons are missed due to rushing through lessons or exercises. However, it must also be stated that one should not just look at the metronome and tuner all the time. Our eyes are not the main driving force behind music.
Listen, imitate, and make it your own
In the age of YouTube I find it interesting that when I need to purchase items or repair anything around the house the first thought I have is to go on YouTube and listen to what others have said about a product or issue I need to resolve. I cannot tell you how many hours I spent finding out about the spider arm of a laundry machine. While music may be around us throughout the day, the art of listening to music takes a conscious decision and an environment to support it. When was the last time you put on a song, closed your eyes, and listened to every element of the song? Listening with a purpose is fruitful when learning a new instrument. Feed your ears, imitate, replicate what you hear and then make it your own.
Take breaks often and do not forget to drink water
In my quest to learn my instrument I often practiced for hours without a break or a drink of water. This had an immediate impact to the practice session as the productivity of the practice session rapidly declined and the long-term effect of not seeing a more rapid progress over time. Without a doubt, water is an enormously important part of the human body and taking breaks is beneficial to our minds. One piece of advice I got throughout my entire music career is to rest as long as you practice. If you play an exercise for 2 minutes, rest for 2 minutes. This does not mean you have to stay idle. Often, I would record myself practicing and listen back to what I just played. This would allow my body to rest while my mind analyses what I just had played.
Music at the end of the day should be fun. This is a universal truth regardless whether you are a hobbyist, weekend warrior, or a part time or full-time musician. Enjoy music and let music be enjoyable.