What’s The Difference Between Amateurs And Professionals (How To Practice Until You Never Get It Wrong)

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Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been fortunate to connect with some university trumpet studios and give some masterclasses outlining ideas about how to improve practice room productivity with organization. We’ve been able to have some great discussions about the benefits of organizing your practice, and I hope that some part of the class is helpful for everyone.

During one particular class, one of the professors highlighted a point that warranted further discussion. He recalled that I had asked the students, “If you never played anything wrong, what do you think your relationship with the trumpet would be?”

I didn’t think much of it when I said it. After all, I’ve been living with these kinds of thoughts for quite some time now. But when that professor highlighted it, I imagined the kind of impact this could have on someone who may not have thought this way before. I decided to write a blog post discussing it publicly with the hopes that someone who hasn’t heard this message might hear it and be changed.

Amateurs Practice Until They Get It Right

Here’s that quote everyone likes to say about the difference between amateurs and professionals:

“Amateurs practice until they get it right. Professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong”

Unpopular opinion: I think this quote is useless.You know what’s really annoying about that to me? It’s a catchy saying, but no one ever explains how to practice until you can’t get it wrong. You’re left thinking, ”If I just keep trying, I’ll get it eventually.” But this isn’t necessarily true.

I’m going to describe a common practice strategy used by musicians everywhere. I’m going to call it “the amateur strategy”. If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone! You take out a piece of music and play a passage 4 or 5 times trying to get the hang of it. You’re working out the kinks, finding all of the problem areas that may trip you up. After the 5th time, you think “I’m ready”, and you play it a 6th time. This repetition is great, and you think “Yes! I’ve got it!”

Here’s the problem: you may have played that passage correctly on the 6th repetition, but your body, mind, and spirit cannot erase the first 5 “bad” repetitions from your memory bank. The neural pathways were being lined on those repetitions too, except they were lining a pathway that leads where you don’t want to go.

If you get 1 in every 6 attempts correct, that’s a 17% success rate. Factor in the fact that most of us play a little better in the practice room than in a performance, we can conservatively lower that to an even 15%. Your practice strategy has given you a 15% chance to perform the way you want to. I wouldn’t take those odds, and I don’t know anyone that would.

Professionals Practice Until They Can’t Get It Wrong

Here’s one example of a practice strategy that I use often to produce a more consistent result in my performance.

Before I play a note on an exercise, I’ll find a tempo that reflects my current ability level to start with. There is no sense in showing myself what I can’t do, I’d rather just start at a speed where I can sound my best. Next, instead of using 4-5 repetitions to find out where the pitfalls are, I’ll simply think through the material I’m about to play and use prior experience to determine where certain pitfalls might be. I’ll come up with a plan of how I want to address those issues when I get to them, and THEN I’ll play my first repetition.

My first repetition is never perfect, but because I’m starting with a plan and at a manageable tempo, my first repetition is never wasted. I’ll learn if my plan for the pitfalls was good or bad. I’ll learn if there are more pitfalls than I thought there would be. I’ll get a wealth of information that I can apply to my second repetition.

My second repetition is almost always a significant improvement over the first. This is encouraging for me. I dig deeper. Maybe everything I learned from the first repetition is great, I just need another chance. So I’ll do a third repetition.

By my third repetition, I know what I need to know. My performance is likely not 100% perfect yet, but it’s usually in the low 90’s. At this point, I usually stop and save further progress for another day. My thoughtful reps have armed me with a list of to-do’s for future practice. I know that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it’s just not possible to ingrain material deeply in one practice session. So I don’t even try.

Your Relationship With Your Instrument

My strategy differs from the amateur strategy in a few ways. First, I’m beginning with a much slower process. Patience and discipline are needed to allow the skills to develop and refine. Another difference is that my practice is informed practice. Like a scientist, I make a plan and test it. I’ll see where my plan failed, make a better plan, and try again. Nothing is wasted if you’re able to learn from your mistakes.

The biggest way my practice strategy differs from the amateur strategy is that generally, I’m playing close to my “highest level” most of the time. I’m not making many mistakes, and when I do, I rarely repeat them. They don’t have a chance to become ingrained and habitual.

I believe this concept is what is meant by that quote. I’m not practicing to figure out how to play some phrase, say I got it, and move on. I’m using musical material to repeatedly ingrain proper playing habits, so that I grow to a point where the only way I know how to play the trumpet is the way I want to play the trumpet.

I want you to think about that question from the beginning again, but with the information you’ve received from this post: “If you never played anything wrong, what do you think your relationship with the trumpet would be?” Hopefully it’s clear that the relationship would be much healthier, and much more positive.

For trumpet players, excerpts like the Ballerinas Dance from “Petrouchka”, the opening solo from Ravel’s “Piano Concerto in G”, or the opening solo from Wagner’s “Parsifal” are commonly thought of as difficult excerpts. I would argue that this is the case because players are approaching them in ways that exceed their current capabilities on the instrument. They are attempting to play something that is too difficult for them at their current level of ability and knowledge, so they make mistakes. As the mistakes pile up, their mental relationship with the excerpt becomes “I make mistakes. This is hard for me”.

This problem can affect everyone, however I think students feel it more than most. Repertoire they’ve been given in lessons, ensembles, or something they’ve picked themselves without knowing how to choose appropriate material can often lead to the development of bad habits. 

Instead of thinking we need to “get better”, I believe the improvement we seek can be found through a reorganization of our practice. In order to ingrain high level playing, we need to search and find where we can already be that player.

Process Over Product

What we’re discussing can be likened to cramming for a test vs. slowly absorbing the material over a longer period of time. Sure, we all have had to cram at some point, but I think everyone is of the understanding that slowly absorbing the material is better for long term retention.

Don’t make your practice about finding the fastest possible way to learn your music. Don’t cram. Learn strategies to slowly absorb the music, so that you can retain the information, and use it to build into higher and higher levels of playing and music making. To end, I’d like to leave you with another quote, one that I think encapsulates the difference between amateurs and professionals quite well.

“Practice slow, learn fast. Practice fast, learn slow.”

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Editor: Will Baker, http://www.willbakermusic.com