Wynton Marsalis’s Twelve Ways To Practice

Arbonmethod.com has republished an article by Wynton Marsalis wrote for Education Digest in 1996 called Wyntonʼs Twelve Ways to Practice: From Music to Schoolwork. One of Marsalis’s goals was to talk about how to get the most out of your practice time, whether it’s musical practice, athletics, academics, or anything requiring dedication and hard work over time. Go and check out what Marsalis has to say in detail at the link above, but here are his 12 suggestions and my thoughts on each of them.

1. Seek out instruction

When I poke around online I frequently find questions posted on brass fora by music students looking for help. Often times the best advice given to them is to find a teacher. The fact that we have such a powerful resource like the internet has become today is extremely helpful for music students, but it’s no replacement for personalized instruction and individual attention.

2. Write out a schedule

I don’t have a written schedule any more, since my day to day activities change so frequently, but I do have a general plan of attack for getting my practice time in. One of the reasons that I feel I can get away with this nowadays is that I spent my time in college keeping a pretty rigid practice/composition schedule that was written out. Putting it on paper really helps, so try it out.

3. Set goals

You’ve got to have a target to shoot for if you want to improve, and you need to set goals that are long term (too difficult for you right now), medium term (almost possible for you right now), and short term (obtainable today).

4. Concentrate

It’s very easy for me to get distracted by other things during my practice. Multitasking just doesn’t work. In fact, if my recollection is correct, resent research suggests that folks who feel they are good at multitasking are fooling themselves and actually perform worse at multitasking than people who feel they are poor at it. Turn off the TV/computer/cell phone, etc. Put all your attention on what you’re practicing and you’ll get more out of less time.

5. Relax and practice slowly

When you practice you’re not simply getting better, you’re developing habits. You want those habits to be correct. Spend your time practicing slowly enough to play correctly and as relaxed as possible and you’ll find it easier to transfer the same correct playing mechanics and relaxed effort into faster playing and performing.

6. Practice hard things longer

In order to get better you need to work on your weaknesses. It can be frustrating to practice longer on things you’re struggling with, but the payoff in the long term will be better.

7. Practice with expression

Personally, I would amend this suggestion slightly to emphasize that you should always spend part of your daily practice focusing your practice goals on playing expressively. There’s a time and place to take your mind off of musicality so you can pay attention on playing mechanics, but never forget that your ultimate goal is to make music.

8. Learn from your mistakes

We all make mistakes. It’s human nature to deny those mistakes to ourselves. This is the biggest mistake because without experiencing failure for what it is, we won’t be able to make the necessary corrections. Be honest with yourself. It’s also easy to get too down on ourselves when we recognize our failures. Instead, understand that during this time we have a choice to turn it into a positive learning experience. Don’t dwell on them, acknowledge them and work out what you can do to improve.

9. Donʼt show off

This one is similar to #6 above. It’s fun to play what we can already do well, but this isn’t practicing, it’s showing off. You’re not supposed to sound great in your practice, you’re supposed to be pushing yourself and working on things that are a little harder than you can currently do. Otherwise you’re not practicing, you’re rehearsing or performing.

10. Think for yourself

Dr. Tom Streeter, my trombone and jazz teacher from college, used to always tell me that his goal was to make me my own best teacher. He didn’t teach me to play music, per se, he taught me how to learn music.

11. Be optimistic

Having a positive attitude about yourself and your goals will go a long way in not only making it more fun, but also in your willingness to put in your daily practice. It also makes you more fun to work with, and since music is usually a collaborative art, your fellow musicians will be more fun to play with. Since what we do in the practice room is what tends to come out in performance you’ll want to practice being positive in your practice too. If you don’t feel optimistic, fake it ’till you make it!

12. Look for connections

This one is easy for me, since I happen to be interested in lots of different things, some completely unrelated to music. Always keep in mind that art is not created in a vacuum. Find the inspiration and advice from where you can.

You should definitely go to Marsalis’s thoughts on his twelve above points. If you have any of your own thoughts to share, please leave them in the comments below.

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