Why you should stop practising now (and what to do instead)

Photo by Ralf Schulze

Does it seem like there’s always way too much to practice?

Everywhere you look there’s an exciting new concept to work on that will make your next solo awesome if you can just master it. Not to mention all the half-finished things that you keep meaning to come back to but somehow never do.

If you have a nagging feeling that you’re missing something, but you can’t quite put your finger on what it is, then read on. We’re going to look at how to move towards a better way of doing things.

Get out there and play music now

For most musicians, whatever level you’re at, the key to rapid progress is to get out there and make some sort of music in the real world NOW.

Yes, you need some other elements in there too. It should make up part of a learning cycle that includes reflection and practice as well.

But the trap that I see most musicians fall into is that they get suck in the practice room far too much. It’s a totally natural and understandable habit to fall into. But it’s not helpful.

You need to get out there.

Even though it feels like you’re not ready.

Even though it feels like so many other musicians are way ahead of you.

It might feel as though the practice room is your ticket to reaching that level where you’re finally satisfied with your performance. Actually, spending too much of your playing time there could be what’s holding you back.

It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture in the practice room

Pulling phrases and concepts apart and focusing on the detail has some huge advantages, but it can also distort your thinking. When you spend a stretch of time entirely in a practice mindset then this starts to shape your perception of things.

Imperfections seem much bigger than they really are.

Exercises that will only make a minor improvement to your playing start to feel vital once you’ve invested a chunk of time in them.

Getting out and playing in the real world gives you immediate feedback on what’s working well enough. It brings into focus which are the really important things and what’s just nice to have.

It provides an uncomfortable reminder about those crucial fundamentals that you don’t know quite as well as you should. When it’s just you and the practice room you can conveniently pretend they’re not a big deal but getting out there for real brings just how important they are into sharp focus.

It also gets you playing with and listening to other musicians – a great way to develop your language and interaction skills. This can also be an invaluable source of inspiration and motivation.

In short, when you base yourself mainly in the practice room, you don’t get the right feedback and you don’t get it frequently enough. It’s hard to get a clear view of which are the top priorities which will REALLY improve your playing if you work on them.

The musicians who make the fastest progress do so not because they work harder than everyone else, but because they’re laser-focused on working on the RIGHT things.

Repeatedly exposing yourself to real-world conditions, especially ones you don’t feel quite ready for, lets you check your bearings and course correct. When you dive back into practice again you can be sure you’re aiming in the most productive direction.

It can feel uncomfortable, and it might not be the most enjoyable thing for you right now. But, boy, does it get results.

So that’s easy, right? Just get out there and do it.

Ok – not necessarily so easy.

If you’re like most people, then you can accept the theory behind putting yourself out there when you don’t feel ready, but you still find it daunting in practice. Here are a few quick tweaks you can make to your mindset that should make it a bit more approachable and enjoyable.

But I’m not ready yet!

It’s easy to think that there’s some level you’ve got to reach before you’re ready. But the truth is that there’s always further to go.

If you don’t feel ready yet then you’re in good company – no serious musician ever gets to the point where they feel they’ve finished. For example, Stan Getz is reported to have said on his fiftieth birthday, “I think I’m finally learning how to play the saxophone.”

In fact, the more you learn and the more progress you make, the more possibilities for further progress open up in front of you. See this desire to keep reaching higher levels as proof of your dedication to achieving musical excellence, but don’t let it stop you performing.

Put the need to be “ready” when you perform to one side, and view getting out there and playing as an essential part of the journey instead.

Your judgement in the moment is flawed

It’s easy to be up there on stage, feel that you’re not playing well, and think that’s all there is to it.

But did you know that your own judgement is extremely unreliable in that situation?

It takes a huge amount of your brain power to play music. The physical movements required to play the saxophone are complex enough, but then you have to add in more. The need to keep making these movements in the right order and at the correct tempo. To sync up with the other musicians. To remember or sight-read the music itself.

It turns out there simply isn’t enough bandwidth left over in your brain to listen properly to what you’re playing at the same time.

It feels like you get an accurate picture of what’s going on but that’s not the case at all. If you’ve ever listened back to a recording of a performance later and discovered that it was actually much better (or worse) than you remembered, then you’ll know what I mean.

Although this can go either way, it tends to leave you feeling that things are worse than they really are. We’re programmed to notice bad things more than we notice good ones. And you forget that the listeners will be hearing your playing with fresh ears. You may think you’re being uncreative and uninspired because you’re repeating the same ideas that you always play, but it sounds new to them.

This is not just an occasional glitch – this is normal. Once you understand and accept this, you can get on with just playing and ignore (for the moment) any thoughts as to how good or bad that playing is.

That judgement is totally unreliable.

You don’t give yourself enough credit for what you can already do

It’s very easy to forget the long hours that went into acquiring all the skills that you now take for granted.

Your brain tends to make judgements by looking for the first example to hand and then assuming that this is a good overview.

In the case of musical skills, the first example that your brain finds is almost always how it feels to do then skill now.

This means you rate skills that you can already do as much easier than they really are. You forget the hard work that went into developing them and just notice that they feel easy and natural now.

And you also rate skills that you CAN’T do yet as harder than they really are. You just notice that they feel difficult and unnatural now and ignore the fact that they would feel easy to you if you’d practiced them enough.

Be assured that the people listening to you (including musicians) will rate your abilities higher than you do yourself.

And that musicians who you think are on a higher level will rate their own abilities lower than you do.

Moving forward

I know it can feel difficult and uncomfortable to put yourself out there before you feel ready.

The great musicians got to such a high level, though, precisely because they were willing to take the uncomfortable steps. To do the things that others don’t want to.

If you can drop the comfort blanket of always wanting to get things perfect in practice. Of learning just one more thing before you’re ready to put yourself out there. Then you put yourself in a position to get the vital feedback that can catapult your playing forwards.

And the more you do this, the easier it gets to do those uncomfortable things. And as you see the results you’ll find it easier to resist the need to practice every enticing new exercise.

You can just get out there and play music instead.

Are you out there playing music as often as you should be? Is there something holding you back from doing this? Let me know in the comments below.

Your mindset and mental skills are some of the key aspects which determine how well you play. But, if you’re like most musicians, then you’re way behind in this area compared to where you are with technique and theory.

What we’ve covered here gives you a place to start, but it only really scratches the surface. Explore the articles at https://playinthezone.com to find exercises that will take you further. There’s even more material and guidance available if you sign up for the free email lessons.And if you really want to go deep, then I’ve got a course launching shortly that guides you through my complete system. Find out more at https://playinthezone.com/unlock-your-performance/ (and make sure you sign up to be notified when it goes live so that you don’t miss out on your chance to grab the limited-time launch bonuses).