Sep 14, 2013

Why Practice Doesn't Make Perfect

You've heard the phrase so many times in your life-- "Practice Makes Perfect".

I'm here to tell you right now that is a flat out lie.  Wrong.  Incorrect.  False.

To explain why, we need to start with a discussion on neuromuscular pathways.  Neuromuscular pathways are one of the hottest trends in excerise physiology research today.  Brian Oates describes how athletes use them to be "better" than the average Joe:
 Neuromuscular pathways are the communication channels between the brain and the muscles. Whenever a person wants to perform a certain movement, skill, or task it is along these pathways that the brain informs the body’s muscles what action is going to be required to accomplish the goal at hand. Once these pathways have been developed, the nerve impulses, which carry the brain’s communication to the muscles, travel them over and over. As one document I read while researching described it, neuromuscular pathways are like ruts in the road; unless you constantly steer away from them they are easy to fall into...

Your body is constantly in a state of learning, adapting, memorizing, and recalling movement patterns. Therefore, if you repeatedly tell your body to move faster, quicker, harder, and more explosively your body will accommodate this goal and find a way to move faster, quicker, and more explosively.

It is able to do this by redefining time and time again the path in which the nerve impulses from the brain to the muscle travel (getting out of that rut!). These new paths will become more efficient and thereby deliver messages from the brain more quickly so the muscles will fire faster. It will also allow for the brain to better sequence different muscles firing. The result of your muscles firing in better sequences and in faster succession with one another is what we call coordination. Elite athletes have superb coordination and is the primary reason they are able to perform highly difficult tasks with such ease.
Musicians can benefit from them, too.  The understanding of neuromuscular pathways strongly informs my approach to teaching private voice lessons.  New students coming into my studio often are confused as to why we don't:
  • Learn a lot of new songs often
  • Learn a lot of songs they want to sing
  • Work on much more than a phrase at a time per lesson
I explain to them how neuromuscular pathways work and how, at their age, it is imperative to develop proper habits for singing, since their instrument IS their body.  It is especially important to focus on the repetitive element of building these pathways since singers often have bad habits that have been reinforced for their entire singing life! 

 This concept also applies to my ensembles, whom I often ask while sight-reading, "When does tone (or vowel shape/blend/dynamic contrast/etc.) matter?"  and they answer "Always!"

I highly recommend introducing the concept of neuromuscular pathways in your lessons or rehearsals.  To further the impression for my students, I make an analogy of the pathways being like roads.  When you practice something the first few times, you carve a dirt path.  A few more times, it becomes a gravel drive.  Months of repetition and consistency later, you'll have a paved road.  Eventually, you build superhighways with 10 lanes on each side.

 So no, practice does not make perfect.  Practice makes whatever you do within that time more engrained.  If you consistently play piano with straight fingers, you'll find it difficult to curve them appropriately in your lessons.  If you ignore intonation while practicing scales, you'll always play scalar passages out of tune. 

"Perfect" practice, however, does make perfect (or at least exceptionally good).  What does that entail?
  • A plan for every practice session/rehearsal with measurable, clear goals
  • Multiple approaches and strategies for solving musical problems
  • No wasted time or aimless doodling
  • Patience to view each piece of music within a scope and sequence and not get ahead of yourself in the desire to just play or sing the whole piece
  • Accountability-- someone holding you to your goals  
Have other ideas for what makes "perfect" practice?  Share them below!

Moving forward,
J.D. Frizzell, a composer, conductor, and educator, is the Director of Fine Arts and Director of Vocal Music at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis, TN. He earned the double Master's in Music Theory/Composition and Conducting from The University of Southern Mississippi, where he also earned the bachelor's degree in Music History and Literature. He is currently a candidate for the Doctorate of Musical Arts in Choral Conducting at the University of Kentucky. He has many published compositions available from and other sheet music retailers.

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