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To improve as a musician, you’ve got to measure and track your progress

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Achieving vertical growth on your instrument requires a means of measuring and tracking progress in your music practice.

As musicians, there are two kinds of growth we can achieve on our instrument: horizontal and vertical. Horizontal growth means we learn more music at the level of difficulty we’ve achieved. This has its place. I have always been more interested in vertical growth, which means learning to play music of increasing levels of difficulty, all the way to virtuosity.

To make vertical growth on your instrument, there are some very important conditions to be met in your music practice. One of these — and one very often lacking in a player’s approach — is a systematic, scientific method of measuring results.

Of course, we all have some vague sense of whether or not we are making progress as players. Everyone has that piece or song or lead we check in with from time to time to see if we are able to play them any better.

But to really kick your music practice into high gear, you need something more focused. You need a system. You need a routine you can apply to various situations; a routine that gives results and provides feedback and a way to measure those results so you can assess the effectiveness of the routine. You need to know whether a particular routine you’ve devised is actually working.

It’s like working out at the gym

Imagine going to a gym to work out and expecting to get results by randomly picking up weights each time you went in. Even worse, what if you never remembered what you did the last time? Sometimes you would work out with fifty pounds, sometimes a hundred.

Do you know what would happen? At best, not much (at least you got out of the house). At worst, you’d have a lot of sore or damaged muscles and lots of wasted time and money.

Surprisingly, this is what many musicians do in their music practice. They will be working on an arpeggio study or scale, and they will have no idea of the top speed they are able to play it — the speed at which their present level of development allows them to execute that particular passage or exercise before “falling apart.”

This is critical information! Without it, you have no idea (or not a clear enough idea) of when you have made progress or have gotten results from a particular practice approach. Just as a bodybuilder must know what weight they are presently able to lift so they can work out with the right weight at their particular point of development, musicians must know the same thing when it comes to their technique: you need to know your athletic ability to produce music on your instrument.

If I am working on a scale, I should know the top speed at which I can play it and work up to that speed every day. I must then apply certain practice routines designed to get me past that top speed, so that if I can play it at 120 beats per minute in sixteenth notes today, I will be able to play it at 132 bpm next month.

These music practice routines are all done with a metronome of course, and include:

  • Breaking passages down and working in groups of notes.
  • Playing up to the exact note where a breakdown occurs and studying our fingers/body for the cause (it’s usually some form of tension that disrupts finger control).
  • Playing a passage with different rhythms, other than the written rhythm.
  • Practicing backwards. Begin at the end of the phrase, and build the phrase bit by bit, working toward the beginning of the phrase.

How to measure your progress

Here are some ways to apply these understandings to your current music practice.

1. Get a metronome and use it for all “technical” routines — especially for all routines designed to increase speed, e.g., scale and arpeggio studies.

2. Determine your top speed as soon as possible when learning a new technical exercise. This is the speed you will work up to each practice session.

3. Determine exactly where the exercise or musical passage breaks down as you go past your top speed.

4. Isolate and analyze. Isolate those notes, analyze the movements of both hands required for producing those notes, and figure out what is going wrong at that speed.

5. Move the metronome to a much lower speed, identify the origin of those wrong things happening, and work with them there — at the beginning. For instance, if my top speed on a Gmajor scale is 120 bpm, and I notice at that speed my pinky is getting so tense it is beginning to pull away from the string, I will look for that happening at a much lower speed.

Once I’ve identified that tendency (which I never noticed before), I can fix it at the lower speed. Then I will see that passage start to get stronger and hold together at higher speeds.

Start doing it!

The more you understand and use this technique, the more you will have the great confidence and pleasure that comes with knowing you can always make yourself a better musician because you know how to practice!

Jamie Andreas playing classical guitarJamie Andreas has taught all style of guitar for 50 years and plays the classical guitar at the virtuoso level. She is the author of The Principles of Correct Practice For Guitar, which offers a scientific approach to guitar playing that can give anyone professional-level technique on guitar. Her work can be found at www.guitarprinciples.com.

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