Practice Better (Vol. 4): It's All About the Hands

This is the fourth post in my short series of articles on how to PRACTICE BETTER.  I will be going through the 7 Big Ideas from Tom Heany's book First, Learn To Practice, and sharing my thoughts.  I highly recommend everyone pick up a copy of this book.  As of right now, Kindle download versions of the book are just under $5.  It's a quick read and has great wisdom within its pages on how to approach and design your practice routines to get the most out of them.  Without further ado, I give you Heany's fourth big idea:


"You know it when your hands know it"

Playing music on your instrument is a physical action.  Knowing a song's chords, scales, history, or other miscellaneous fun facts about the song may help you gain a deeper understanding of the music and may help you to learn and appreciate the song more effectively, but when it comes to performing the piece, it all comes down to your hand movements.  Knowing that a song is in the key of G major isn't going to help your fingers accurately play the notes.  When it comes down to a performance, if you want to play a piece fluently and with emotion, you will need to make sure that your hands know every movement in the song intimately.  If you have to think about what chords you're playing next, and what shape your fingers have to make, you're taking scarce and valuable mental energy away from the emotion of the performance and putting that energy into purely technical and academic efforts.  These technical and academic efforts should be practiced and learned deeply during your practice sessions so that you're not thinking about them during a performance.

Performing a piece of music should feel like walking into your bedroom at night with the lights off--your hand knows EXACTLY where to go to hit the light switch to turn on the lights.  You don't have to think about it at all.

So what can you do to make your hands memorize the music?  Well, the obvious thing you can do is to practice diligently.  Here are some tips on what that means: 

  • Take the time to move through the piece slowly:  You will need to be patient, but moving through the piece slowly will help you learn the most effective ways for your hand and fingers to move in order to achieve the desired sound.  This doesn't necessarily just mean the tempo (which is addressed in the bullet point below), but it also means not trying to learn too much of the piece at once.  If you can only perfect two measures of a piece in your practice session, that's fine!  Playing two measures perfectly is better than playing a whole song poorly.


  • Don't play too fast: Playing too fast leads to poor and inefficient form, which makes playing fluently difficult.


  • Experiment with different fingerings:  Try playing a phrase using different fingerings or in a different part of the neck and write down the fingerings that feel easiest and most natural.


  • Meditate on each movement:  Take time to understand and describe how each movement feels as you repeat the same short movement over and over again.  That kind of focus will help your muscles develop the memory of that movement.


  • Be honest with yourself:  Do your hands really know the music, or are you just stumbling through the piece haphazardly?  Just because you don't need to look at sheet music or chord charts to play a song doesn't mean that your hands know the music.  If you can close your eyes and play a piece of music perfectly while envisioning the song's emotions in your mind (rather than envisioning chords or musical shapes), that is when your hands know it.  That is when your performance shines.

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