Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Practicing vs. Playing: An Important Distinction For Any Student

by Guest Blogger, Corey Hendricks

One of the most common things I’ve found in students of various levels and styles of playing is that the terms “playing” and “practicing” are often interchanged and not clearly defined in how they approach them. Over and over again, as an instructor of guitar, and especially in the realm of jazz where the focus on improvisation can certainly lend to the ambiguity of these terms, a student may lack in separating them and as a result, progress can be stifled and one’s musical language may become stagnant.

Many times in which I’ve asked a student “what are you working on?” or “how are
you practicing that?” I get a response involving simply just playing passively without
concentration of a given concept, or without clearly defining what they are working
on to begin with. To this, I outline what I feel practicing should be, and how it differs
from just playing. While this may be somewhat selective to improvised music, this
definition can be adjusted and applied to whatever styles, levels, etc…

This is the idea that practicing is like in baseball, warming up with a weight on
your bat, so when you take it off the bat is light, easy to swing, and you have much
more power and control than you previously had. In musical terms, it is limitation.
Practicing should be the (or a given form of practicing should be) giving the student
clearly defined exercises, or concepts or ideas, that are compartmentalized to work
very specific areas of overall musicianship.

For example: teaching a scale pattern to work up to a certain tempo in specific keys
is the “weight”. Once the student has mastered this, it’s time to “go up to bat” and
use the pattern in real, musical examples. At this point I would have them improvise
with the scale pattern, and by previously giving them the limitation in concrete
terms, using that device will now feel much more natural and musical than before
and they will have in essence: “taken the weight off the bat”

Now, in my eyes to define the “playing” distinction in which they will do after
working up the “practicing” as well as performing live, is to me, playing with
eliminating the analytical, conscious mind; simply just “in-the-moment performing”
with all aspects of self focusing on the music, leaving everything they had practiced
at the door. All too often, a student’s playing will get caught up in trying to
remember what they had practiced, or being too forceful while trying to insert what
they had been working on, and this will immediately take them out of the moment,
and cause a barrier between their mind, their ear, and their hands, leaving their
playing to suffer.

This concept of practicing vs. playing may be quite simple just in terms of being
conscious of it, but being clear about it can in the big picture, help a student grow
leaps and bounds, and offer them exponential success in the practice room as well as
the stage.

Author Bio: Corey Hendricks is a guitarist/composer/educator active in the Boston/Minneapolis/NYC areas. He is Founder of
MusiCloud, a cutting edge approach to online music education, that offers live, 1-on-1 lessons with top teachers of all instruments via video-conferencing. Corey can be reached at, and writes for the MusiCloud Blog

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