What to Practice, Not How

Practice should be a thinking and learning activity. Unfortunately, it has become a physical activity with no purpose other than ‘putting in the time’. ‘Practicing’ scales and memorizing pieces is the lowest common denominator of the concept of ‘practice’. This, then asks the question, ‘what to practice?’ Practice other than scales and memorizing takes knowledge of exactly what the language of music is made up of.  It’s not found in music theory texts.

Theory texts that are written by PhDs, that are by and large academic,1 as they should be. That’s how PhDs get their PhD. They write for specialists in their field, and with ‘advisers’ that are also PhDs. A PhD in medicine, for example writes specialized medical texts for others in their field; endocrinology, neurology, psychology, and others. A PhD in law, for another example writes specialized legal texts with legal language for those in his field; constitutional law, oil rights, etc.

There are texts, however that are not academic. A PhD may contribute to a site that contains information for you and me, i.e. the general public. The medical site http://www.medmd.com is such a site. It is not academic, i.e. for the specialist, but contains information on how to lose weight, or information on side effects of medicines. It’s useful. It’s a ‘popular’2 site.

Music theory texts are mostly academic. They contain information for the specialist, not the musician. ‘Figured bass’, or ‘thorough bass’ for example, is specialized information for the Baroque specialist. Yet it is taught for the general music student, and is of little use for him. ‘Types of cadences’ is another area that is purely academic for the theory specialist, therefore of little use for the musician. There are many other areas, and one may judge for oneself their usefulness.

Popular (useful) music texts are not. They try to be. Language texts and CD’s are example. They present materials such as charts of the conjugation of verbs, lists of gender adjectives, sound bites of pronunciation. But the language student still must use a ‘phrase book’ when visiting a foreign country. Yet, the three-year old in any country speaks his language fluently, given his limited vocabulary and lack of syntax.

The problem and its solution should be obvious: an imbalance of significance to mass. ‘Significance’ may be defined as ‘information’. Information is wonderful, but without mass it remains on a shelf. ‘Mass’ may be defined as the physical universe use of any given bits of significance. In comparing the two, ‘significance’ may be regarded as 99% of the equation, whereas mass is the remaining 1%. Imbalance? Obvious. The solution? For example, one may


find a word that is unfamiliar. Then, read the entire definitions of that word, then write sentences using contrasting definitions of that word. Samples are given in dictionaries, but the sentences must be one’s own. Then incorporate it within one’s written and speech vocabulary. This is entirely possible when learning a foreign language. For example, take a short sentence and learn it. Then start working it with different words or tenses. For example, ‘It is raining’, change to ‘It was raining’, and, ‘It will be raining’. By creating choices, one is learning the language, not by aforementioned charts, but by choices. Employing choices one begins to get a feel for the language. Memorizing a short phrase and doing nothing more with it is merely memorizing the phrase; ‘parroting’ one might say. Do something different, and learning will result, and with a better balance between significance and mass.

The language of music is no different. Practice must consist of choices, then work with those choices. And the choices must be one’s own, not someone else’s, nor examples from a text book. Choices then, might be regarded as the key to education, not information per se. Learning and practicing that which is given is a dead-end street. Taking that which is given and changing it, or paraphrasing it takes intelligence. It takes practice. That gives one choices that comes from one’s own thinking. It’s creative, and it’s very, very valuable.

“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”
― Oscar Wilde

1 Academic; not of practical relevance; of only theoretical interest. (from the Dictionary on the web)

2 Popular; for the general reader, not the specialist. (This definition has nothing to do with being ‘popular’, i.e. being liked).

Ralph Carroll Hedges, B.Ed., B.Mus., M.M.

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