When Shortcuts Aren’t Shorter: Training Takes Time

Apple peeler
A time-saver we all appreciate

We’re always looking for shortcuts, aren’t we?

We check our GPS to see if there’s a faster route (or we might step a little heavier on the accelerator). We buy gadgets that will perform tasks for us with less effort. When it’s the middle of apple-picking season and our apple peeler/corer/slicer breaks, we start planning on how to get a new one. Really.

Saving time and effort usually seems like a wise course of action. To wit, my life is full of clever innovations.

I admit, I have myself become dependent on (addicted to?) lots of gadgets in my life. Many of them are musical. I really appreciate my Snark tuner, for example. It allows me to tune my guitar during a performance or in a noisy room, and it will always be pretty close to concert pitch. But it also makes me lazy. “Where’s my Snark? I didn’t bring it? You mean, I have to tune up the old-fashioned way, by listening?”

pick stamperOr this handy gadget. On the top, it reads, “Pick’s 4 Life”. It’s a pick-stamper, meaning if I ever need a pick to play my guitar but can’t find one, I can just pull out some old credit card and punch out a new one. No kidding, it’s pretty cool! And, if Dave Ramsay should read this, it’s a great way to actually use your credit cards for something helpful instead of buying lots of stuff you can’t afford.

I like shortcuts. I use them. I promote them.

But they are not always the best answer.

Training Takes Time

The thing is, when it comes to music, there are very few shortcuts that are worthwhile. Listening to music is one thing (I still use my iPod a lot), but creating it, playing it, singing it – now we’re talking about training yourself to reach new heights with a personal skill set, not a new toolbox.

Getting your fingers or your voice to take on new, complex tasks where very small details matter is not easy. Step by step, almost anyone can learn to play or sing, but only through diligent practice.

I have students, for example, that struggle with counting aloud while they play. It’s an important technique to learn, but it can be hard to learn.

Now for you woodwind and brass players, your approach will have to be different for obvious reasons. But playing guitar, piano, cello, ukulele – this is now an axiom in my studio:

If you can say it while you play it, you know it. If you can’t, you don’t.

Saying note names or counting aloud as you play are both difficult when you first start doing it. It feels like juggling. But those techniques really help you clarify in your mind what you are doing. Saying what you’re playing puts your thought process right out in front of you like nothing else.

You’ll notice your mistakes faster and know what to practice.

Then you’ll play more accurately.

And then, you’ll learn new songs faster.

If you find you can’t do it, that means there is something still too fuzzy about the whole thing. Maybe your technique is distracting and not dependable. Maybe the whole counting thing doesn’t make sense yet.

But the axiom is true. If you can say it while you play it, it is clear in your mind and will stand a better chance of coming out correctly. If you can’t, you don’t know it well enough. Not yet.

It Pays Off

Listen, you don’t get in shape for a race in a day. You practice, you train, you repeat it over and over. There is no shortcut, no way to bypass the blood, sweat and tears of personal training. But every time you repeat it, you train not only your reflexes but your thought processes as well. It will get better if you stick with it.

Let me encourage you today, if you feel like practicing gets you nowhere and you’re getting tired of the struggle – take a deep breath, regroup, try it again. You can do this music thing. Take smaller segments of the music. Try a slower tempo. Take a break and come back in a few minutes.

It’s going to take diligence, time and focus. And there aren’t any shortcuts.

How is your own practice time going? Is progress slow, or have you found some methods and mindsets that work well for you?

Please leave your comment below, or email any questions you may have about music, practicing, or being a next-step musician to [email protected].

© 2014 Steve Case