Finding interest in technical exercises

The goal when playing an instrument is to learn the actions required to play it so intimately that you don't have to think about them. Musicians often call this muscle memory, and in a more general sense, it is a function of the subconscious mind. Unfortunately, developing a skill to this level requires repetitive practice, and that is boring for many people. But by changing your point of view, it is possible to find interest in technical exercises.

I believe that the first aspect to finding interest in technical exercises is to understand what they are trying to do. While often lumped together, they actually serve two different goals: isolating details to practise separately, and exhaustively learning a technique.

The first of these is done as playing an instrument is a complex subject, with multiple things happening at once. Yet we can only really think about one thing at a time. In order to develop techniques accurately, details are practised separately and slowly, so they may be done accurately. With time, the subconscious takes over, and does it for you. Thus, a technical exercise is an isolation of a small aspect of technique. An example of such an exercise is practising a small part of a tune you are struggling with.

The second kind of technical exercise involves learning everything that an instrument can do. The mechanics of an instrument define a limited set of abilities, such as the available notes and the possible transitions between them. One way of approaching an instrument is to learn only the fingerings needed to play a single tune. But, if this is done, there are many things that are not being practised. This matters while sight reading, for instance, as these things will trip you up. The goal of exercises like scales, arpeggios, and intervals is to learn every single possible note transition.

An easy way that you can begin to see value in technical exercises is to make your own. As you are learning to play a tune, it is inevitable that you will find some aspects of it easier than others. You can make your own exercises out of this just by working on the section that you find difficult by itself. In doing so, the value of the exercise is obvious, because it is related to something that you are already interested in learning.

The key to finding interest in things like scales is to focus on the details. While at a surface level a technical exercise may appear to be a repetition of the same thing, if you really pay attention to what you are doing, you will see that this is not the case. Every time that you play through the exercise, your performance will be slightly different. If you learn to notice these mistakes, interest can be found in the most mundane tasks.

As you work on it from day to day, you can notice that the mistakes you are making gradually reduce and it slowly gets easier. You will also see this carry through into an improved ability to play in general. Scales are what melodies are based on, so if you improve your ability to play them, you also improve your ability to play music. The more times you do something, it begins to move from your conscious thinking mind to your subconscious. Once it's in the subconscious, you can call on the skill and your fingers will just do it—like walking.

Finally, you can mix up your practice of exercises. As you do the same thing for a period of time, it becomes fatiguing. What you can do to help with this is to mix up the things that you are practising. Say, work on scales for 5 minutes, then play a tune, then work on intervals. There is a good chance that this is actually more efficient as well due to the spacing effect. This is an observation from learning science: that people learn more effectively when exercises are spread out in time.

As you get more experience with playing music, you'll notice that the things that you play start to blur together anyway. After a while, all music becomes 'another sequence of notes.'

Thoughts on...