3 ways to improve your practice

February 7, 2017

 As musicians, we by nature want to grow. We want to improve. That's one of the things that sets us apart from the rest of the world - we are never really content with where we are, we always strive for what is next. 


Now, if you're like me, you've spent hours and hours practicing only to see a little improvement. And sometimes, thats what it takes (depending on what it is you are practicing). But, most of the time, it's because practice just turns into an aimless jam session.


You know what I mean.


You sit down to practice something, after 10 minutes you get frustrated because it's hard, and then spend 50 minutes self-medicating by playing stuff that you are already good at. Before you know it, an hour has gone by, and your practice is done for the day. The only thing is -


You didn't actually practice anything.


We've all done it, and that's okay. It's a part of the journey of a musician. Something that isn't talked about too much is the level of self-discipline required for practice.


For example, a recent case study showed that the average person working a 9-5 can accomplish all of their tasks for the day in only 2 hours. If you were to eliminate all of the time in between tasks in their normal 8 hour work day, they only spent 2 hours getting everything done. Now, the other 6 hours are spent doing...who knows what. 


In reality, that is exactly what our practice time looks like. People spend three hours practicing and only see one hour worth of growth. What we will be learning today will do the opposite - based on neurobiology, psychology and physiology, these principles will help you get three hours worth of practice done in one. 



  • 1) Practice slow. And here's why.

So, I'll be honest, I HATED when people told me this. It wasn't until I became a huge nerd and started studying the neurobiological component of slow practice that I really appreciated how powerful this tool is. 


We frequently hear the term "muscle memory" in the musician's dialect, but few people can actually deconstruct muscle memory and explain what it is and how to develop it. Here is short explanation.


Every movement you make is a product of electricity firing through different patterns of neurons in your brain. There are billions of neurons, and each micro-movement has a specific pattern of neurons. These patterns create pathways (or pathogens).

Now, there is this super fun stuff called "myelin" in your brain. It kinda looks like a long, microscopic spaghetti noodle. When the same neurological pathway is used multiple times in a short period of time, a cell in your brain called an oligodendrocyte (pull that word out when you want to sound SUPER smart) will actively release myelin to wrap itself around that pathway, thus insulating the pathogen. When that pathway is insulated, it enables the electricity to travel through all of those neurons faster and faster without any of the signal getting lost. Think about it like spark plugs in a car. They're insulated with rubber to contain the electrical current, thus powering the whole dang thing. When your spark plug needs changed, your entire car starts to jump, stall, and basically convince you that the end of the world is here. 


As a result of this, myelin can be your closest friend or worst enemy when it comes to your practice time, because it doesn't care about speed, it only registers certain patterns repeated.


Most folks will try to start playing something too quickly when they are learning it and justify it by saying "well, it's okay that I keep messing it up, I'm just learning!" In reality, on a neurolobiological level, you're confusing the crap out of your brain, and nothing is happening. If anything, your oligodendrocyte is panicking and going myelin crazy with all of the wrong patterns. 

But, if you play something very quickly, or very slowly, your brain doesn't register a difference. It only registers the pattern that is being repeated. So, by practicing slowly, you create enough space in between each movement for you to force your body to do the correct movement even if it doesn't feel natural yet. Repeat that pattern correctly with no mistakes, and you are creating a perfect frame of reference for all of your happy little neurons, thus enabling you to myelinate (develop muscle memory) at a much, much faster rate with no hiccups. 



  • 2) Correct reinforcement right before you go to sleep.

Your brain will solidify information into your long term memory while you are in the deepest from of sleep, REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. So, first off, make sure that your sleep is high quality. Assuming you have that part taken care of, here's a little bio-hack -


Your hippocampus is responsible for the transfer of information from your short term memory to your long term memory. It does this during REM sleep. Now, only about 20% of all of the information that you gather throughout the day is going to make it to your long term memory, and your brain prioritizes what information to transfer based on what has the greatest impression on your conscious mind. By practicing something correctly 7-9 times right before you go to sleep, you are sending the message to your hippocampus that this information is a priority, thus guaranteeing that this information will be solidified into your long term memory.



  • 3) SMILE

Seriously, though. As simple as it sounds, smiling while you're practicing (even if you don't feel like it) is one of the most powerful tools for retaining new information. When you smile, all of the muscles in your face tighten and reposition your brain in a specific way that triggers a natural release of dopamine, epinephrine, serotonin and neuropeptides.

Dopamine, epinephrine and serotonin are all neurotransmitters. They're the feel good chemicals that enable your brain to function properly and retain information. Neuropeptides are crucial to developing muscle memory - where the oligodendrocyte acts as the active initiator of myelin, neuropeptides act as the receiver; if there is a shortage of neuropeptides during the myelination process, the myelin basically doesn't know where to go. 


So, make sure you're having fun, or at least making yourself smile even if you don't feel like it. :)


To sum it all up-

  • Practice slowly enough so you can guarantee that you are playing whatever it is you are wanting to learn correctly, don't give into the stress of speed.


  • Target the new information by practicing it a few times right before you go to sleep. 





If you want to learn more about how to optimize your practice routines, head to this link and sign up for a free lesson with one of our instructors. www.musicmentorsonline.com/freelesson


Happy practicing!