Book Review - First, Learn to Practice - Tom Heany

TLDR; This short lively book First, Learn to Practice by Tom Heany provides a lot of sound ideas and advice for improving the effectiveness of your practice. I enjoyed reading it and recommend it to anyone who wants some ideas to up their practice game.

During my school years I avoided music, drama and games so really experienced the joy of learning skills through applied practice. For some reason I thought initial failure meant I was not 'capable' and so gave up. Rather I stuck to woodwork, metalwork and science subjects.

As a result, learning an instrument as an adult required me to figure out a lot of unfamiliar mental and physical stuff. I just didn't realise it for a long time. After many years of struggling to teach myself I finally found a tutor who did understand this (Jim Rintoul). As a result I've come much further in the last couple of years than from all my earlier efforts.

Recently, I stumbled across this gem of a book and decided to see if I could pick up a few extra ideas for further improvement. I'm glad I did, it has both reinforced my understanding and inspired me.

So this book provides:

"ideas, attitudes, approaches and techniques that will help you practice better, and as a result play better"

These are organised into three key topics:

One of the big ideas is that during practice we focus on movement. Once we get that right the music can follow.

Tom points out that to understand something we add the new information to what we already know. To perform skills, however, we repeat movements until they are correct and automatic. That's something I failed to appreciate during my schooling.

Another big idea is that playing and practicing are quite distinct. Practice requires noticing what happens when we play using a "Mechanic's mindset". We then analyse and learn what happens when we play. To practice we pick one specific thing and then perform repetitions to improve that. If we work on the right things other aspects will also improve. The trick is to get small and go slow and the hard parts will get sorted out. The final idea is to set your standards high while practicing and aim for the best quality possible.

The seven good habits are; to be comfortable when practicing, be honest with yourself, be optimistic about the eventual results, be consistent, be persistent, go slow, and finally to make your practice musical.

Of the three tools, having a solid plan and using a metronome are probable familiar to most of us. The other tool, Looping may not be. This is not about using a looper recording and playback device, though that can be an excellent learning tool. Rather it is the process of iteration you use to pull everything together and so maximise your progress. In short, you pick something small to work on and loop it while observing. When you notice a problem you then "drill down" on that issues and loop more slowly at while observing what happens. Once the issue is fixed you can build up again.

The above is a very brief summary of the many excellent ideas in this short lively book. Do yourself a favour and take a little timeout to explore them and increase your enjoyment. And enjoying practice is another one of those BIG ideas.

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