Finding interest in technical exercises

Exercises in music can seem very boring, why are you asking me to play such a simple pattern of notes? The key to finding interest in technical exercises is to understand what they are trying to do for you.

As you learn to play songs, sooner or later you'll run into a part that you find more difficult. You may take this difficult section out of the song to practice by itself. Lo and behold, you just made an exercise!

The value of the exercise is obvious because it is related to something that you're already interested in learning, and practising it will quickly show results and make that difficult section easy for you to play.

As you will shortly see, this is the intent of all exercises, to make our lives as musicians easier.

The types of exercises

While often lumped together, I believe that exercises fall into two broad categories:

  • Isolating details to practise separately.
  • Exhaustively learning the instrument.

The first of these is done as playing an instrument is a complex task, with multiple things happening at once.

The conscious mind is easily overwhelmed, and we can learn more effectively if things are broken down.

This includes exercises made from parts of a song, and in particularly difficult cases it can be taken to a much smaller scale. You could start with clapping the rhythm, then learn the fingerings and breath pressures later.

The second kind of technical exercise involves learning everything that an instrument can do.

One way of approaching an instrument is to learn only what you need to play one song. But, if this is done, there are many note transitions and other things that are not being practised.

The value of things like scale and interval exercises becomes apparent as you start to learn more music. If you try to sight read something using an interval you haven't learned, there's a good chance your flow will stall.

The point of exercises like scales, arpeggios, and intervals is to exhaustively learn the instrument: to learn every single possible note transition, and develop subconscious association between notes that are often played together.

Where to find exercises

It's important to match exercise to your level, as for a total beginner eager to learn to play some songs, being expected to learn a huge collection of scales would probably be off-putting. The best kind of exercises in this case are probably just the kind made from parts of songs.

Once you start to see the value in things like scales and intervals, it isn't difficult to formulate them for yourself. Alternately, its easy to find books containing them, and there are tools that generate them over different ranges.

There is a lot of value in understanding how to make your own exercises as you can adapt them to what you are currently struggling with. An exercise collection may move too slowly or worse, too fast, for you.

The last point is of particular concern regarding linier method books as some people will require more time at a given level than others. Such books may be used as an outline of what one needs to practice. I'd advise picking and choosing exercises and skipping, or making more if needed.

Apps in principle can better match their difficulty to the learner, although many of apps I have seen still follow a similar linier approach and do not allow the user to make their own exercises. I think there's a lot of room for improvement.

A great deal of progress has been made in teaching methodologies within the field of video game design. Games like Breath of the wild, offering a huge degree of player agency, and Portal, which is basically a tutorial from start to end yet manages to never feel like one.

I would hope that these advances make there way into music education. Humans have agency, and are basically guaranteed to wander form any prescribed path. Designers can make use of that by deliberately designing an open, non-linier possibility space.

Other tips

Another great way to find interest in technical exercises is to look at 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. There is value to be found in noticing how those errors reduce over time.

Also, mix up your practice of exercises with other things you enjoy doing. Say:

  • Work on scales for 5 minutes.
  • Then play a tune
  • Then work on intervals for 5 minutes.

There is a good chance that this is actually more efficient as well due to the spacing effect, people learn best in short practice sessions spread out in time.

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