Finding 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 can actually serve two different goals:

  • 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.

In order to develop techniques accurately, details are practised separately and slowly. With time, the subconscious takes over, and does it for you. Thus, a technical exercise can be an isolation of a small aspect of technique.

A special case of this kind of exercise are 'etudes', which are short musical compositions designed to help you practice an aspect of technique.

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

One way of approaching an instrument is to learn only the fingerings needed to play one song. But, if this is done, there are many things that are not being practised. This matters while sight reading, for instance. If you run into an interval you don't know, your flow will stall.

It is possible to exhaustively learn an instrument, as the mechanics of an instrument define a limited set of abilities, such as the available notes and the possible transitions between them.

This is the goal of exercises like scales, arpeggios, and intervals: to learn every single possible note transition, and associate notes that are often played together.

Starting to see the value of technical exercises

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 song, it is inevitable that you will find some aspects of it easier than others. You can make your own exercises out of this 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.

Focus on the details of how you are playing.

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.

Mix up your practice.

Finally, you can 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 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. After a while, all music becomes 'another sequence of notes.'