After a challenging attempt by a student to demonstrate an assignment that was to have been prepared for the lesson, I often find myself asking that student, "Why practice?"  First, I get a quizzical look and the invariable, usual quiet reply, "So I can get better." Boy, is that student surprised when I come back with, "Sorry, that's way too general - too broad.  That's the end effect of practicing, but it doesn't describe why you practice."

So I ask the question again -- to which a similar, but now nervous, generalized response comes. At this point, it becomes clear that the student doesn't have a clear understanding of the "why".    

Here's a short, rather straight-forward answer to "Why practice?"

There are really two main reasons to practice:

The first, I'll label as "academic."  

  • Reading of notation - clefs, key signatures, time signatures and understanding of pitch placement for the given instrument (as well as rhythmic value of the written note/rest).
  • Understanding of musical symbols and terminology and the types of effects these symbols require in execution (e.g., articulations, dynamics, tempo changes, register changes, phrasing).
  • This type of study (practice) - reading a complex symbolic system and abstract language (musical notation) -can be done away from the instrument

The second, I'll label as "physical." 

  • Training your body (your arms, wrists, hands, fingers) to translate the musical notation. Having your fingers create the rhythms and sounds required by the musical notation and doing so with right side performing one motion (while the left side may be performing a different motion) is very complex physical movement. This is no different than training your body to do sports - and may, in many ways, be more difficult than training for a sport! 

This type of practice can only be fully done at the instrument. While doing so, the student merges the academic, the physical, and the real high level thinking and brain processing occurs. If students don't attend physical practice for their sports --soccer, lacrosse -- sometimes 5 -days a week -- do they get to play in the game?  Maybe, but maybe not -- they may not know the physical drills and their body might not be in top performance if they neglect to practice.

Similarly, if students don't study and practice their musical instrument daily, they will not fully reap the benefits their musical training.  In my opinion, if they neglect to practice, they will be giving up far more -- the development of extraordinary physical and cognitive skills.   

This article describes the scientific research behind the host of skills that are required to play a musical instrument; e.g., reading a complex symbolic system (musical notation) and translating it into sequential, bimanual motor activity dependent on multisensory feedback; developing fine motor skills coupled with metric precision; memorizing long musical passages; and improvising within given musical parameters.