This is a short summary of a presentation that I was privileged to be invited to give just over a month ago to some of my colleagues on the subject of managing practice. That is; the practice of practise. Apparently they found this collection of these ideas quite inspiring and motivational, so I have decided to share them further. They are not all fully my own, but this a collection of things that have inspired me and I hope you also find interesting or useful too.

If initially like me you were just scratching your head over the grammar in that opening sentence, a little explanation; ‘to practise’ is the verb, and ‘practice’ is the noun, in UK English at least! Therefore it is possible to be practising practice, which is the topic of discussion here. I admit I had to look this up, but I’m not sure you can express this quite the same way in American?! (However, this is a grammatical minefield! …as I read and check this article for about the tenth time.)

The presentation was accompanied by a detailed handout, which I’ve uploaded here:

Practising Practice – WG CEQ presentation 2015

So now the grammar police have turned their sirens off, lets have a think about this whilst I negotiate the red squiggles under every other US auto-corrected word in this article! 😉 (where are the language settings on this thing?!).

‘Practising practice’ suggests that you can work on and improve your practice technique. This is exactly true. Doing better or more efficient practice will increase the rate at which practising improves your playing, or any practical skill. It is the difference between hitting a nail in with a clean hammer strike, and bludgeoning it in with a rolled up newspaper.

Some essential ingredients before we start:

Motivation, Inspiration, Work Ethic, Passion.

See my entry ‘#Plogisms‘ for some inspirational videos on these topics courtesy of Anthony Plog. Without all of these, that practice room door will remain shut with us on the wrong side of it!

To help us with inspiration, here are two of my heroes. Both are experts on the subject of practice. The results of their personal endeavours I imagine every Englishman has witnessed at some point.

Who can forget Jonny’s world cup drop goal? If you have forgotten it, or don’t watch Rugby, or have had your head elsewhere for 12 years; he kicked the 3 points England needed in the dying moments of extra time during the final of the Rugby World Cup in 2003. All the pressure and expectation of a nation had come down to one moment and one man’s drop-goal kicking ability. Fortunately for England, Jonny had been practising for exactly this moment for many hours each week long before then. Martin Johnson made the field position, Matt Dawson fed the ball out and Jonny dutifully slotted the kick. England won their first Rugby World Cup and we all went nuts. Hoorrah!

So what is your World Cup final moment? When will you find yourself needing the execution of a finely crafted and well rehearsed movement under intense pressure? You might not be kicking for the World Cup, but that intense moment of pressure might sound like a familiar scenario to many of us. As Sir Clive Woodward neatly puts it, think ‘TCUP‘; Think Clearly Under Pressure.

When the adrenaline starts flowing we’re into auto-pilot mode, relying on the muscle memory to do exactly what was rehearsed. Bigger moment = more adrenaline!

Our old favourite performance equation comes in here:

Performance = potential – interference

We can maximise performance in two ways: Prepare and build on our potential or minimise interference (or performance anxiety). Preferably both in tandem.

Performance anxiety is a subject I’ll consider another time, but building potential is what we are seeking to achieve in our practice sessions by thorough preparation. When Jonny was practising his drop goal technique for around an hour every day, he didn’t know it would be for such a decisive moment in a cup final. Fortunately musicians usually have a little more opportunity to expect those difficult moments but the preparation isn’t so different. Jonny discusses his routine a little more in depth here:

The question is often asked, how much practice do you do? The question shouldn’t be how much, but what. As JW mentions above, the length of his practice session depends on how well it is going. His sessions sound as if they are planned to be little and often; daily maintenance of the technique he has developed in previous sessions, and development of a little more.

For me there are three distinctively different types of practice: Repertoire rehearsal, technical development, proceeded always by a thorough warm up. This warm up and preparation puts our minds in the right place for good practice, reminds our muscles what we taught them last time and prepares them for action again.

In rehearsal, we learn repertoire by programming the sequence of muscular events that create those musical phrases. Assuming we already have the level of technique required, we work to establish the most efficient way of achieving the best results. Then, we must practise this until we can’t get it wrong, as opposed to until we get it right.

Here’s where David Beckham comes in. Think what you might about him off the field, but he was undeniably a formidable athlete and sportsman. England’s most capped outfield player had a dead-ball ability that he had spent many hours practising, and was ultimately used to win matches on the biggest stage. This video compilation is an impressive illustration of that technical consistency!

Break the technique down in to layers: Speed, spin, trajectory, accuracy etc. How do you work on those technical layers separately and develop a practice schedule that will help you to become a free-kick master?

Don’t ask me about football, but music probably isn’t much different in our approach to practice. We can learn a lot from studying the way athletes train. Just a warning though; you probably won’t end up marrying a pop-star by getting good at playing the trumpet.

After rehearsing a piece of music, if there is clearly a deficiency in technique then we need to plan some development sessions. Practising some technical exercises with a clear goal will gradually help us over that hurdle. There is much more detail written in my handout article about music practice techniques. It also refers to my own practice planner worksheet whichI have found to be an effective way of organising schedules, as have several of my students.

I write these articles as a method of generating discussion on pedagogy, and also as a resource for my own teaching. It interests me as a professional musician, and fuels my own enthusiasm for improvement. If you have anything to discuss please get in touch and I’ll be happy to do so!

Meanwhile, let’s contemplate what our own World Cup winning moment might be. What is our reason for heading to the practice room today?

For the pleasure of everybody who isn’t Australian, here is Jonny Wilkinson’s again…

…whilst we’re here: Note that the drop goal was no fluke. It was built from the lineout – a team effort to put Jonny in ‘the pocket’. Also note he fed Jason Robinson the pass to go in at the corner, and also landed some crunching tackles. There was much more to JW than just a left boot. Just to illustrate that, that winning kick came from his lesser favoured right foot! The important lesson here: None of this happened for him by accident!