The truth is that there is no “effortless” way to achieve “mastery” of instrumental or vocal performance. Mr. Werner was actually referring to the fact that we are not really ready to publicly perform a piece of music until we have obtained the ability to perform it effortlessly. It takes consistent, focused and diligent work to achieve mastery in the field of musical performance. I spent most of my childhood assuming that I did not possess the ability to achieve mastery on my instruments. I loved music, but my ability to understand theory seemed to far exceed my physical ability to perform. It wasn’t until I grew older that a realized the level of practice I was investing was not equal to the result I was hoping to achieve.
This leads me to the first secret to effective practice which is to set realistic and reachable goals. Kenny Werner discusses one aspect of this concept by suggesting that we not set out to practice for a long period of time. Instead he tells himself that he is going to practice for five minutes. Sometimes his practice session does only last for this amount of time. On other occasions, he is swept up in the moment and a much longer period of time goes by. The idea is he got over the hump of bringing himself to practice.
I would take this concept even further. Mr. Werner was addressing professional (or at least extremely serious) musicians in his book. We are not all at that level, but this does not mean we cannot pursue musical performance as a hobby. We just need to set realistic goals for what we want to achieve. Many top level professionals practice 4-8 hours every day. Many public school music students practice 15-30 minutes a week (out of those who even practice). Where do you fall within that range? How much time do you have to devote to the study of musical performance? What level do you wish to achieve? If you answer these questions honestly, it will help you to set more realistic and achievable practice goals.
Once we have set our practice goals, there are ways to ensure that we achieve them in the most efficient and effective manner. One is to regulate the amount of time spent in any one sitting. Studies have shown that we retain information most effectively during the first and last ten minutes of any study session or lecture. Some practice technicians use this information to suggest that the most effective form of practice is to break one’s time into twenty minute segments throughout the day. A lower “hobby” level musician may have just one twenty minute session per day. More serious musician will have multiple practice sessions per day.
I have personally experienced practice sessions that have extended beyond twenty minutes in which I was totally engrossed in the task at hand. For this reason I do not apply this twenty minuet concept as a hard and fast rule, but I do use it as a guideline. If I am in the middle of a very productive practice session, I will continue until the current thought has concluded. However, even during productive moments I do find it helpful to stop for a brief water break and relax my mind. We must learn to both focus on our practice material and be mindful of our state of mental fatigue. Eventually it becomes easier to judge when to continue and when to take a break.
With that said, I have already extended this post to my normal weekly limit. I do not want to cram too much information into one week and lose your attention in the process. Instead, I will end here and continue with this topic next week.