Practicing vs. Playing: What's the Difference?

A topic that I’m bringing up more frequently with my students is the difference between practicing an instrument and playing an instrument. Often times the terms are used synonymously, but there is a distinct difference which I believe is important for learning an instrument. Let’s say a person (student or professional) wants to learn a new song. First, look at the destination. You have to know where you're going in order to figure out how to get there. This can be done by listening to the song on YouTube or by streaming the song. Get an idea of how the song is supposed to sound played properly. 

Practicing a song means you’re working through all the technicalities and music theory–the notes, rhythms, accents, and dynamics. All the good stuff. 

Practicing lays the groundwork for playing the song. 

As you practice a new song and get through the technical aspects of it, you’ll soon find yourself slowly but surely playing the song. You’re not so much thinking about whether you’re hitting the right notes or playing the correct rhythm. You are now performing the song from the countless amounts of repetition, playing the song over and over.

At first it may be 90 percent practice and 10 percent playing, but by playing the song repetitively, those percentages shift. Working through the practice portion of the song early on helps to transition more efficiently into playing the song, leading to the ultimate destination of playing the song to (near) perfection. 

Playing the song repetitively will make it more fun, and you’ll begin to feel the "groove" of the song. You might find yourself tapping your foot or nodding your head as progress happens.

When you move from practicing to playing, the music may feel choppy and uneven. There can be hesitation going from and to the next note or chord. More playing can help. There will always be a balance between practicing versus playing the song. If you need to go back and practice specific measures to fine tune them, that’s okay. 

Over the course of 30 years of playing and the hundreds of songs I’ve learned throughout my life, I find this balance of practicing and playing to be beneficial and fun. That’s why we musicians play our instruments. Because it’s fun. Grab your instrument, practice the basic elements of the song, slowly move into playing the song and enjoy the moment. You will reach your destination.

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