The Practice of Practice: Get Better Fast, by Jonathan Harnum

Practice Like This!: 35 Effective Ways to Get Better Faster, by Jonathan Harnum

I owned a guitar at eight, and my mother dutifully drove me several miles each week to a small music shop in Gresham, Oregon, for lessons from a very nice man named Ray who had a ton of sons that looked exactly like him in decreasing height like Russian dolls. I know this because he had a picture of the family on the wall. He was a man who never had to worry about who the father was. He would patiently teach me something simple on guitar and have me swear to practice. Then mom would stop at a bakery that specialized in cupcakes that had been injected with lemon cream and we’d return home. There I would not practice.

I would not practice because scales, though important, are boring. And the music I was learning wasn’t really interesting. And the strings hurt my fingers. And I had better things to do like sorting my books and working out a catalog system. Yes, I was that kid.

It wasn’t until three or four years later, when we moved to California, that I really learned guitar. We lived across the bay and mountains from San Francisco. The people at school seemed weird and different, as I’m sure I did to them. I would bike to school and back, maybe swim and play with the neighbor girl, and then I’d hide in my room and fool with the guitar. I taught myself chords and melodies and sang from song books. I could spend whole afternoons just running my fingers up and down strings while staring out a window. When we moved from there to Idaho I got even better. James Taylor was an idol, as were Simon and Garfunkel, so I learned to finger pick, which lead to an interest in Leo Kottke and on it goes.

Had I had either of these books, or the information in them, I’d have probably grown musically even faster. Harnum plays trumpet and has a PhD and spent a great deal of time studying what the TV commercials like to call the science of neuroplasticity¬†and interviewing musicians about their practice schedules. Among the things he found, much to his surprise, is that several musicians said that they never practiced at all. When he dug deeper he found that it wasn’t that they didn’t practice, just that they avoided the musical drudgery that I faced when I was eight and did what I did starting at 11, only with more focus.

There are dozens of excellent tips in both of these books. Some, in my dotage, I wish I’d understood earlier. Some were familiar but were explained and refined in excellent ways. Some, you’ll find, are pleasant assignments like attend more live performances and play with others.

The first book, The Practice of Practice, is the longer of the two. It goes into much detail about what practice is about, how to practice as if you were performing, timing your practice (down to when to take naps), what poor practice will do and the value of starting slow and gradually speeding up practice to properly code new music into the synapses.

I think that there are applications here beyond music, as well, with learning habits that could help someone wanting to improve in nearly any art form. I can also see some language applications.

Harnum has put up websites for both books with links to interesting musician interviews and performances along with additional information and visuals for the concepts in the books. In the few weeks since I read these books I can sense improvement in my own playing by applying some of the tips that made the most sense to me … or were, perhaps, the most eye-opening. I may even end up digging out my metronome or try applying some of the tips to singing. I have made more use of an app on my phone (Amazing Slow Downer) which will dramatically slow down an MP3 recording without changing the pitch. When you’re trying to emulate a Django Rheinhardt, Leo Kottke, Charlie Parker, or other speed demon musician it’s fascinating and VERY educational to ¬†slow them down to half speed and try to follow note-for-note.

Your choice a book depends on your needs. The second book is more tightly organized, shorter, and concise in its tips with the same website aids.