Earl Scruggs wrote a banjo book and in it, he shows how to do an exercise and then says, “Repeat a thousand times”. It may sound funny (and it is) but it’s true. You may think you know something, but you can always go further. You may think you’ve practiced something enough and are ready for the next thing, but you may need to practice it another 982 times.
It makes perfect sense to me. You play something until it’s completely a part of you. It becomes an unconscious activity like walking. Then you can do little things to make your walk more enjoyable and interesting.
Perhaps after 500 times you’ve mastered that little phrase. Then you can play it 500 more times and use it to practice other things you are working on: bowing, variations, etc.
But that doesn’t sound like fun!
It’s my mission to make practicing scales and exercises more enjoyable for you so that you will do it more regularly.
Some things to do to make this fun:
- Practice with drones and beats.
- Practice the same thing different ways by adding variation.
- Transpose to a different key.
- Work at your edge.
- Make a project out of it.
If you want to learn more about how to play with drones, just take the Drone Practice lesson from the How To Practice Fiddling course. Lesson four is on drone practice. And here’s a practice lesson on How To Play With A Beat.
Sometimes it’s fun to turn something into a project. Maybe your project is to work towards recording a challenging tune. Or recording an album. Or playing as many tunes as you can with the word whiskey in the title.
An easy way to play an exercise 1000 times:
Play it for five minutes a day, two weeks in a row.
For those of you who want to check my math, here’s how I figured this out:
If you play a one-bar phrase (in 4/4 time) 72 times a day, then you can reach the goal of playing it 1000 times in two weeks of solid practice (1008 times).
14 days x 72 repetitions per day = 1008 repetitions
I discovered that I didn’t like having to count that high while practicing. It wasn’t fun and seemed to distract and defocus me from the task at hand. I wanted to just be able to set a timer and then play the challenging phrase.
So I set a timer for one minute and then started to play the phrase. After one minute, I counted twenty-four repetitions. I reasoned that 90 beats per minute would be a good average tempo; I’d probably do the phrase faster and slower. So, in order to play it 72 times a day:
72 times per day/24 times per minute = 3 minutes per day for 14 days
But this number would be incorrect if your average tempo is something slower like 70 bpm. It also does not take into account the little pauses you have in your practice. So I like to round up generously from three to five minutes. This way you err on the side of practicing too much over too little in your quest to play that thing 1000 times.
If you are practicing a two-bar piece (the length of a quarter in a fiddle tune), then you’d need to increase the number of minutes per day or the number of weeks you practice it. So if you want to practice the last quarter of Arkansas Traveller (two-bar phrase) a thousand times, you could either play it ten minutes a day for two weeks in a row, or five minutes a day for four weeks in a row.
If you play something over and over again, something strange and magical will happen. You will stop thinking and start to play. You’ll start to channel music rather than forcing it out of your instrument.
PS: Don’t forget to use a timer!
Further reading and study
Here are some free posts and lessons that will help you to make practice fun and productive.
Make Friends With Your Doubt