Bobby Selvaggio

Saxophonist - Composer - Educator - Band Leader

Quality versus Quantity

When I walk the halls and listen to various students’ practice, most of the time I am thinking of the concept “Quality versus Quantity”. Practice just for the sake of practicing to put “time in” just to say you put your “time in” is not good enough. So how do we get more “Quality” of time in? Everything we practice must have purpose and direction with a very specific goal in mind. Some goals can be short term goals, but we must always have an idea of what are long term goals are. Short term goals tend to be immediate situations, like learning a piece of music for a concert. Long term goals tend to be the fundamental musical elements that make us better musicians, like ear training, command of your instrument, knowledge of theoretical concepts, and research into the historical background of multiple styles.

So why do we practice the way we practice? This is an important question that we need to deal with before we even head to the practice room. If the answer is for reasons like passing a class or because you were told to, then you may need to rethink why you are doing what you are doing. The next reason is back to the concept of just learning repertoire for the next concert. That short term goal or mentality of pumping out music for the next concert or event. With this approach, you build limited technique and a limited understanding of your instrument that is repertoire driven only or learning how to do one thing only one way. Finally, we can practice the way we do from an obsession with music standpoint. We practice from a wholistic standpoint that comes from an obsessive need and a deep desire to experience music.

Let’s discuss first the short-term goal of practicing or what I refer to as repertoire driven practicing. Of course, learning repertoire is important and essential. We all understand that, and I don’t want to belittle the importance of that. But, when it comes to becoming the best well-rounded musicians we can possibly become, sometimes repertoire is beside the point. Sometimes we get so hyper-focused on learning music for the “next” event that we just learn notes and rhythms on a page and go no deeper then that. This is Quantity practice. A lot of music education is quantity practice, whether it’s applied lessons or ensembles. The other issue of just doing repertoire driven practicing is building your facility technique just from the music, etude, concerto, or whatever it is that’s in front of you. The idea of learning one thing one way only is limiting as a musician. For example, if you have ever performed a piece of music that has fourth intervals in it, but only in one key and only one way, then you are not going to hear the interval of a fourth very well. You are learning that pattern from a muscle memory standpoint for that one situation. You have not learned how to hear fourths better. So, every time you encounter a musical phrase in a piece of music that deals with fourths, you are starting over every time learning that pattern of fourths for that composition. You are learning music from a mostly visual standpoint and rarely from an aural standpoint. The better we hear something, the better we understand something, so the better we play something.

So how do we get to more of a long-term practicing goal? How do get more quality practice time? First, we must let go of the dogma that repertoire is the only important thing. Performing repertoire from a deep personal and passionate place is the end goal, but it’s not the only long-term goal as musicians. There are musical elements we must tackle from a practicing standpoint to be able to become effortless with our performances. Fifteen minutes, or “Quality of Time”, of disciplined and concentrated practice on a specific situation is always better then an hour plus, or “Quantity of Time”, of undisciplined and non-concentrated practice running a piece of music over and over. Philosophers and musicians have discussed the 10,000-hour rule where you need to spend 10,000 hours practicing something to master it. But that only works if it is 10,000 hours of correct and disciplined practice. So, what are the things we should practice getting to these goals? Fundamentals! If we want better individual musicianship quality and deeper experiences in our performances, we must become effortless with basic music fundamentals. And what are these music fundamentals? Ear training or how we hear things, facility technique, command of your instrumental or vocal medium, sound and time, music theory knowledge, and historically correct style. And, reading music out of books is not the end game. Technique and etude books should be used as a guide for contextual musical suggestions, not as a visual dependency to box us in and disconnect us from how we hear music. Get off the page when practicing scales. Be spontaneous and creative playing your scales every possible way (intervals, triads, arpeggios, contrary motion, change of note order, etc.). Improvise ideas, situations, and musical shapes within the sound of a scale with and without a metronome and drone. Compose your own etudes, especially around situations that are hard for you.

How you practice sets up how you perform. Be OK with spending more time on music fundamentals then music repertoire. We all understand that the end game is to perform repertoire in a live situation with as much emotional content as we can. But, quantity will come if you focus your practice on quality. Make the live experience about your personal experience with every moment of everything you do, and everyone will see the quality in you and your performances.