Self taught, self help

There are huge numbers of musicians who are self taught (it would be interesting to know exactly how many!!). These people are no better or worse than those that have formal lessons. Often they have even more desire to learn as they are lead by the heart and not what teacher/mum/dad wants them to learn. We received a request into the Practice Clinic from a pianist who is largely self taught:

I’ve been playing piano on and off for the last 15 years. I did have lessons for a few years when I was younger but now I just teach myself. I tend to play from ear a lot and have forgotten how to read music. I would like to become more skilled so that I can play better at our weekly worship sessions.

Our reply:

It seems to me as if you really enjoy your music making, which is a great starting place for any musician! It also seems that you think your musical and technical ability is a hindrance to you.

Aspirations
The first thing I would advise you to do is to think about what you want from music? Is your dream to continue to play in your worship band – albeit to a better standard? Do you have ambitions outside of this? Are their particular songs or techniques that you want to master? Spend as much time as you like thinking about these questions, time spent now will be practice time saved later. Once you’ve had a think, write down all your ideas in as much detail as you can. This will give your practice real direction and things to aim for.

Routine
The next thing I would suggest is that you adopt some kind of routine for your practice. Practising ‘when you feel like it’ is fine for those musicians who are happy to go with the flow and are not really interested in getting better. Those people who really want to improve however have regular time when they can focus on working towards their aspirations.

Don’t be alarmed!! When I mention routine some turn and run a mile. Routine does not mean a strict adherence to a military regime. It does however mean setting aside a regular time. Regular means different things to different people. For you it may be 3 times a week – that’s fine as long as you have some time set aside.

Also be careful to avoid the biggest mistake most people make when creating a routine – setting a time limit. Time is irrelevant. Whether you practice 30 or 60 minutes does not matter. The question to ask yourself is ‘Am I a better player now than when I started this practice session?’ If you can answer yes to this then you have had a good session.

Ear training
In terms of specific practice tasks I would suggest that ear training would be extremely useful for the type of playing you are doing. We have some aural practice methods on the site but I would also suggest that you make up you own. Get used to playing and writing down things that you hear. If you hear something you like while you are down the mall try singing it over and over. Then when you get to the piano try playing it. If you can, try to write it down. The more you do this type of listening exercise the better and faster you will get. This will be extremely useful in your scenario where your worship band plays without music – imagine that you could just hear an idea from someone else and then be able to play it! It is possible with practice, regular, focused practice.

Technique
Another specific are I would think about is technique. You say that you are ‘not all that skilled’. This may be true but the statement is of little use to your practice. Instead be much more specific. Which particular things present the most problems? Is it stamina, fingering, leaps, co-ordination, stretches, playing in 3rds? When you play over the next few weeks listen really carefully and try to decide which areas of your technique need the most attention.

Once you have higlighted the main areas of technique that need work put them into your regular practice routine. Make up patterns and exercises that use these techniques and work specifically on getting better. Be careful to avoid mindless repeats. Look at the repetitionpractice method for the most common pitfalls.

Music
You may think you have forgotten how to read music but I think you might be surprised how much you do remember from your early lessons. I would strongly encourage you to get back into reading music. Notation is the means by which musicians can share music the quickest. It might only be some chords symbols, a lead sheet or even a full score but it will help you to understand what the composer or other musicians want much more quickly.

Enjoy
Finally I would say continue to enjoy your music making. I hope you find some of the advice above helpful, if it improves your playing you should get more enjoyment from it. If at any stage you lose the enjoyment take a step back and ask yourself why you’re doing it.

Would you like to be the subject of a future practice clinic? Contact us with any practice problems and we’d be happy to help.

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