If It Sounds Good Could It Be Practice?

“If it sounds good, you’re not practicing.”

I say this to every student.

I heard this as a young college student taking his first jazz improv class.  I really had no idea what I was doing back then.  I had been completely self-taught on the guitar for eight years and three rock and metal bands prior.  Classroom-jazz was pretty different from what I had known music to be.  I couldn’t read the notes, I couldn’t follow the chords and the words people used was a foreign language.  I definitely had to practice.

I never felt like I had to practice prior to this.  ‘Did I ever sit down and practice anything?’ I wondered.  I played a lot with my friends.  We learnt songs together and wrote stuff. But this was different.  There were brand new concepts to apply in a whole new setting.

Maybe I should celebrate. The worse I sound the better my practice.  I am getting some GREAT practice then!

My teacher continued,

If it sounds good you’re not practicing.  If it sounds good, you’re playing – and you need to play too.  But practice is when you’re struggling with something you can’t do.  ‘Play’ is having fun with what you can do easily.  And you need to do both equally.

Man that really sounded genius to me when I first heard it.

Not only did that little nugget acknowledge the necessity of having fun, but it also outlined three crucial elements of mature practice.

  1. Accountability – we are responsible for our own learning and aware of our own progress
  2. Self-Discipline – we should persist despite hardship, distraction and wrong notes
  3. Access to Success – we need the opportunity to perform learned skills at some point – i.e. ‘play’

Genius I just knew it.

A few years later I heard Victor Wooten speak about language and how we learn it as children through trial and error and simple exposure to those who are more accomplished than us.  (Subsequently, his book The Music Lesson had a profound impact on my feelings about music education, thanks to a student of mine.)

And then I started thinking about my own practice, well after the jazz classes, well after my first year teaching guitar.  I had just spent an hour jamming along with one of my favorite albums and I felt like it sounded good.  It was amazing fun and I learned quite a lot.  That had to have been practice of the best kind, right?  I mean, I had the examples of how to do it coming right out of the speakers. I knew exactly what I wanted out of that session.  I knew precisely how long I would give myself, and readied my environment accordingly.  It wasn’t forced on me and contrarily, I was craving the experience.

“If it sounds good you’re not practicing.”

Now that I’m thinking about it, it might not have sounded all that good.  I was jamming, so some of it was good and some of it was bad.  I guess I was working during some of it: stopping, rewinding, just listening, testing things out…  And now that I’m thinking about it, those bands never sold out a show or landed any of us record deals.

So maybe it was like this: during the times it sounded good I was playing and I was having fun, and when it sounded bad it was practice, and it was still fun!  Sometimes my success was found by trial and error and other times it was found using logic and reason.

By experiencing practice in a play-like setting I was experiencing the best of both worlds, and had been practicing my whole life.

You might check David DeLoach’s post on blogspot, to which this is a partial response: Exercises-vs-Playing

Thanks to my many great teachers and friends for putting up with all the fun, sometimes good-sounding and sometimes-bad sounding practice.  Cheers!

Author: aarondoerr

Owner of Fellow Musician LLC, a small music education business specializing in outreach and private study. I'm guitarist for musical theatre and production assistant at St. Louis Public Radio.

2 thoughts on “If It Sounds Good Could It Be Practice?”

  1. Thank you! I shall send my students here to let them know that it isn’t only me who keeps going on and on about this. Playing through pieces is the mistake that so many music students make, but don’t realise. And following on from what you say, playing through and playing a phrase wrong a couple of times, then playing it right once and moving on, not realising that the wrong notes have been ‘practiced’ more times than the right notes!

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