My favorite part of music is practice time, all alone at home, with no one watching or listening. The acoustics are good, and solo time with my instruments is where I make progress. I can concentrate on points of technique and particular musical phrases that need attention, and it’s important to do that alone because it involves playing one short part repeatedly. I find great joy in playing the same thing over and over, but it’s not much fun for the listener.
I estimate a ratio of 10 to 1 regarding practicing versus public performance: 10 hours of practice for one hour of playing, and that may be generous on the public performance side. Too much “playing” and not enough practicing, and my technique deteriorates alarmingly. It was interesting to find that concept confirmed in a book about introverts.
Susan Cain in “Quiet — The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” published in 2012, discusses the work of research psychologist Anders Ericsson and colleagues, who compared three groups of expert violinists at the elite Music Academy in West Berlin. The professors divided students into three groups: the best violinists, with the potential for careers as international soloists; good violinists; and a third group training to be violin teachers rather than performers.
The musicians kept detailed diaries of their time. All spent the same amount of time on music — more than 50 hours a week, and all had similar classroom requirements, but the two best groups spent most of their music time practicing alone: 24.3 hours a week, or 3.5 hours per day, for the best, compared to 9.3 hours per week, 1.3 per day, for the future teachers. Those in the best category rated “practice alone” as the most important of all their music activities.
“Elite musicians — even those who perform in groups — describe practice sessions with their chamber groups as ‘leisure’ compared with solo practice, where the real work gets done,” Cain quoted the study as saying.
Ericsson found similar effects of solitude in other expert performers, including tournament chess players, college students and athletes. He told Cain only in solitude can you engage in Deliberate Practice, the key to exceptional achievement. You identify the tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach, strive to upgrade your performance, monitor your progress, and revise accordingly. “Practice sessions that fall short of this standard are not only less useful — they’re counterproductive. They reinforce existing cognitive mechanisms instead of improving them,” Ericsson said.
Deliberate Practice takes intense concentration, and other people can be distracting. It requires deep motivation, often self-generated. It involves working on the task that’s most challenging to you personally, and only when you’re alone, Ericsson said, can you go directly to the part that’s challenging you. In a group class you focus on that only a small percentage of the time.
I enjoy playing with other people, often as much for the camaraderie as for the music, and because I can hear more than one part without needing to make a recording. I occasionally attend jam sessions, for example, but when I do I stop worrying about technique and just relax in the moment. But often technique nags me, a little voice saying, “Look how you’re holding your pick,” or “Your bow is skating off center.” I make mental notes, and back I go to another 10 hours of practicing alone. At least.