Practice Makes… by Harry Parker

You probably completed that title with PERFECT and if you did, along with me and thousands of others, you’d be completely wrong and here’s why. It’s well documented that the way most people practice, whether it’s dancing, acting or playing an instrument, is to practice doing what they already find easy or know how to do and keep repeating that in the belief that they will somehow become quicker, more proficient and the whole thing will become second nature. The bad news is, that’s almost never the outcome. That way of practicing doesn’t make what you’re doing perfect, it makes what you’re doing permanent – it hard wires your bad habits and you practice and learn to keep ‘getting it wrong’.

For over 11 years, with my partner, I’ve been teaching an American Vernacular Swing dance called Balboa in the north of England. As dancers and teachers ourselves we soon learned that the way students become better at what they do is to identify the things they can’t do or don’t do well and work in a very focused and structured way on those things until they get them right. Then – other than occasionally reviewing those new skills and incorporating them in their everyday dancing – they move on to something else they can’t do and learn and practice that. My good friend and International Dance Instructor Bobby White, calls this ‘purposeful practice’ – really concentrating and working at acquiring skills one at a time until you own them. Remarkably, in spite of this knowledge gained from dance, when I took up the ukulele a couple of years ago I learned some chords, adding new ones as I went along, played covers (over and over) in the belief that I would ‘somehow become quicker, more proficient and the whole thing would become second nature.’ Guess what? Yeah, you’re right. That wasn’t the outcome. Moreover, it’s become increasingly clear to me that when you post original music, as we do in this group, it’s really important to perform it well.

Having come to the realisation that the way I was practicing wasn’t turning me into the next James Hill or Jake Shimabukuro, I’ve now, quite recently, begun applying the principle of purposeful practice that I already knew, to the ukulele. Whatever your current level of playing proficiency, you can make real advances in your playing by taking this approach. It’s also important to understand, however, that if you are trying to become the next Jake or Victoria Vox – unless you’re already pretty close to what they do, you’re heading for a lot of frustration and disappointment. You have to identify clearly where you are now so you can measure if you’re getting better. To take a really profound and important example from dance, Mikhail Baryshnikov said: “I do not try to dance better than anyone else. I only try to dance better than myself.” That’s a great thing to aim for in your practice, always striving to be better – tonight, tomorrow, next week, next year – than you are today. In the books ‘Outliers’ (2008) by Malcolm Gladwell and ‘Bounce’ (2010) by Matthew Syed, it’s been argued that to be considered excellent or outstanding at any skill requires around 10,000 hours of very efficient practice. Think about that for a moment: even if you could learn to practice that way, really working at improving your chord repertoire, chord changes, picking, strumming, riffs – at two hours every day without missing – it would take over 13 years! For most of us (especially me age 67), that’s unrealistic so it’s not surprising that relatively few players reach the level of excellent/outstanding. But you can – very definitely – become better than yourself and this is why even though many of you who read this are already more proficient and talented than I am,

I know that if you apply what I’m telling you to your own practice, you’re going to make some outstanding improvements. In my case – having identified where I am now – I’m currently working on my strumming and trying to master some really interesting patterns and rhythms used by Paul Cameron and Matt Hicks, two guys in this group who’ve generously published videos explaining how they do what they do. I’m also working my way (slowly) through Phil Doleman’s excellent book ‘How Music Works on the Ukulele’ I know those things are achievable and at the end of each practice, I can already see and hear my progress. My writing and playing is improving and I’m really getting a lot out of it. Believe me, there is no better feeling than when you forget about feeling inferior to the really outstanding performers because you’re too damn busy feeling great about yourself because you’re better today than you were yesterday.

References: ‘Practice Swing’ (2016) Robert White ‘Outliers The Story Of Success’ (2008) Malcolm Gladwell ‘Bounce The myth of talent and the power of practice’ (2010) Matthew Syed ‘How Music Works On The Ukulele’ (2016) Phil Doleman


3 Responses to Practice Makes… by Harry Parker

  1. janoschbernie 28th July 2017 at 7:46 am #

    Harry, you are so right. I want to add an inspiration I got out of nowhere one day practising scales on the bass guitar. i tried to overcome the big movements of my fingers and to avoid using strength to get things happen. and siddenly i did something and put the bass away. then after ten minutes i took the bass again and did the same thing again. and after a while i found that practising in a rythmic pattern like ten miuntes practice then a break of at least five minutes then again ten minutes practice is speeding up the learning a lot. so i do on the uke. i take the uke and play a tune single note wise, then play the chords and again single note wise and then i have a picture inside i can reproduce easily.

  2. Harry Parker 28th July 2017 at 11:46 am #

    It’s a great strategy for practicing/learning anything. Small chunks of focused practice is so much better than long stretched where you can lose track of what you’re aiming for. Bobby White advises that you do what he calls an ‘out of the moment check’. Keep checking if you’ve drifted out of what you were doing and get back to the thing you’re working on. Quite often we confuse ‘learning’ – when you don’t know it with ‘practicing’ – when you know it but aren’t good at it.

  3. Kristy 28th July 2017 at 3:03 pm #

    Pretty tune…very fancy…i need to work the same way obviously ..was just coming to that realization when i read your piece…and also know i won’t get anywhere unless i do short practices
    ..its frustrating

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