Technique Matters - Practice and Exercise: What's the Difference?


William Leland, D.M.A.
Las Cruces, NM USA

ere's a question that applies to the study of all instruments, and indeed to the development of any complex motor skill: What's the difference between practice and exercise?

There's nothing a musician knows better than the dismal fact that every instrument requires lots of practice, and that practicing is an activity that usually involves large doses of repetition. There is never any lack of passages, whether from compositions being prepared or from specialized works known as "studies" or "exercises", that demand repeated execution intended to render them manageable and reliable. In fact, many passages--scales, for instance--become part of a regular routine, while others may require a unique approach devised for the occasion. But there are right and wrong ways of practicing; it's how we practice, as many teachers are fond of repeating, that makes all the difference in learning to play.




Muscle or Brain?

In the act of developing any motor skill, the how of the training procedure is of paramount importance--much more important than, say, the intensity or duration, which, if done with incorrect movements or excessive tension, can in fact be more detrimental than no training at all. Dogged persistence in practicing something the wrong way will almost certainly end up making things worse instead of better, so the learning process ought to begin with the understanding that practice and exercise mean two different--though simultaneous and complimentary--things.

Dr. Kenneth D. Cross, of Northwestern University Medical School, investigated the relationship between brain and muscle activity in motor skill development. Writing in The American Journal of Physical Medicine in 1967, Cross defined exercise as "the repetitious performance of an already-learned act with the purpose of modifying one's physical characteristics." Practice, on the other hand, is "the performance of any act...with a view to fixating the spatial and temporal organization" of that activity. Put simply, we may say that exercise involves changes in the muscles, which can be done with mere repetition; but practice is aimed at making changes in the brain and nervous system as well, and in order for that to happen each repetition must be different from the previous one.

Muscle AND Brain

This is where the active brain comes in: every repetition has to be analyzed as it happens so that it can be improved the next time instead of merely repeated. Thus the performer's attention has to be focussed continuously on finding ways to make the execution of a passage ever more efficient: perhaps the string player shifts the position of his bow slightly, or the wind player resets his embouchure or modifies his breathing, or maybe the pianist tries a better fingering or a more direct trajectory for the hand. In a thousand subtle ways a repeated passage can be gradually honed to approach maximum economy and efficiency.

The Teacher:

Herein lies by far the most important part of the teacher's job. I often say to a student, "I can't really teach you to play--nobody can learn to play in an hour a week; all I can do is teach you to practice." The teacher's primary task is to impart the skills needed, first to diagnose problems, and then to apply the proper strategies needed to solve them--and these are things the student must ultimately learn to do on his own in the practice room.

Can it be Done?

All right, then, just how does a teacher train a student in the art of independent practicing as opposed to mere exercise or unimaginative rote activity?

Teaching is a lot like parenting: the proper goal is not merely to instill obedience, exercise control, or make someone into a carbon copy of someone else; rather, it is to assist in the development of a new personality, and to render that personality ultimately independent and autonomous.


Autonomy is really as much an attitude as a skill, and it can be a critical component of the relationship between student and teacher. Of course, it almost goes without saying that the attainable degree of self-direction must depend on the student's age, experience, skill and personality, and the opportunity to vary one's demands from person to person is one of the great advantages of one-on-one teaching. But nothing is more basic to the development of the student's practice skills than the habit of attempting learn on his own.

The first thing to do, then, is to foster autonomy in every way possible. A good start can be made by simply insisting that the student learn to be personally responsible for everything on the page. Does this sound obvious? Well, it should--but one of the most common and persistent failures in teaching occurs when the teacher sits in the lesson and constantly corrects misreadings as the student plays: "that's a C-sharp," "F, not A, in the bass," and so on. This is not teaching; it is merely doing for the student what he ought to be doing for himself, with the result that ninety-five percent of the lesson time is spent telling him to do what's right there on the page in front of him. What an awful waste of time!

Even elementary students can learn to be meticulous enough to notice the things that they know already. Accidentals are perhaps the most common example: how often do players miss sharps or flats that occurred earlier in the measure and are still in effect when the same note is played again before the bar line? Here is a perfect opportunity for the teacher to say, not, "that's a C-sharp", but, "you missed something there--see if you can find it." Then perhaps the next week's assignment could include going through the entire piece at home--preferably away from the piano--to find all similar places and mark them.

What about the tempo and character indications at the very beginning of a movement? Every music student should have a good music dictionary, look up the markings in his music, and write translations in the score if necessary. Even if the piece is still being played under tempo the player should have an idea of what the composer has in mind, so that he will aim for something more than just hitting the right keys at the right time. It's deplorable how often these markings are ignored, even by advanced students, with the result that the ears get used to simply doing without them. I once taught a master class in which a graduate student performed Debussy's Evening in Granada with beautiful accuracy, control and phrasing, but utterly without the essential rhythmic character because she had failed to notice the all-important directive at the beginning: "In tempo de Habanera". This entire work is based on the rhythm of that Spanish dance, which continues throughout and ties the whole thing together, but she hadn't bothered to look it up, nor had the teacher bothered to mention it. (I played the habanera from the opera Carmen for her.) A little autonomy here would have transformed the whole performance.

Begin at the Beginning!

If it could be clearly understood from the very beginning that the pupil is not allowed to force the teacher to do things for him that he can do for himself, and that the the teacher will not spend lesson time saying the same things, or hearing the same mistakes, week after week, think how much faster the progress would be! It does not have to be done in a hard-nosed, confrontational fashion at all, but it should be made a part of the very structure of teaching. Only then can truly efficient practice skills be developed.

Page created: 7/22/06
Last updated: 01/30/15
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Reprinting from the Piano Education Page The Piano Education Page, Op. 10, No. 1,
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