I saw this list in a book a few years ago and had forgotten about it until I came across it again recently. These 12 practice tips from Wynton Marsalis are very well thought out ways to get the most out of your practice time.
|Wynton Marsalis photo from 1981|
First Published in The Education Digest, September 1996
As a boy growing up in New Orleans, I remember my father, Ellis, a pianist, and his friends talking about
“sheddinʼ.” When they got together, theyʼd say, “Man, you need to go shed,” or “Iʼve been sheddinʼ hard.”
When I was around 11, I realized that sheddinʼ meant getting to the woodshed – practicing. By the age of 16,
I understood what the shed was really about – hard, concentrated work.
When my brother Branford and I auditioned for our high school band, the instructor, who knew my father, was
excited about Ellisʼ sons coming to the band. But my audition was so pitiful he said, “Are you sure youʼre Ellisʼ
At the time, his comment didnʼt bother me because I was more interested in basketball than band. Over the
next several years, however, I began practicing seriously.
Practice is essential to learning music – and anything else, for that matter. I like to say that the time spent
practicing is the true sign of virtue in a musician. When you practice, it means you are willing to sacrifice to
Even if practice is so important, kids find it very hard to do because there are so many distractions. Thatʼs
why I always encourage them to practice and explain how to do it.
Iʼve developed what I call “Wyntonʼs 12 Ways to Practice.” These will work for almost every activity – from
music to schoolwork to sports.
1. Seek out instruction: Find an experienced teacher who knows what you should be doing. A good
teacher will help you understand the purpose of practicing and can teach you ways to make practicing
easier and more productive.
2. Write out a schedule: A schedule helps you organize your time. Be sure to allow time to review the
fundamentals because they are the foundation of all the complicated things that come later. If you are
practicing basketball, for example, be sure to put time in your schedule to practice free throws.
3. Set goals: Like a schedule, goals help you organize your time and chart your progress. Goals also
act as a challenge: something to strive for in a specific period of time. If a certain task turns out to be
really difficult, relax your goals: practice doesnʼt have to be painful to achieve results.
4. Concentrate: You can do more in 10 minutes of focused practice than in an hour of sighing and
moaning. This means no video games, no television, no radio, just sitting still and working. Start by
concentrating for a few minutes at a time and work up to longer periods gradually. Concentrated effort
takes practice too, especially for young people.
5. Relax and practice slowly: Take your time; donʼt rush through things. Whenever you set out to
learn something new – practicing scales, multiplication tables, verb tenses in Spanish – you need to
start slowly and build up speed.
6. Practice hard things longer: Donʼt be afraid of confronting your inadequacies; spend more time
practicing what you canʼt do. Adjust your schedule to reflect your strengths and weaknesses. Donʼt
spend too much time doing what comes easily. Successful practice means coming face to face with
your shortcomings. Donʼt be discouraged; youʼll get it eventually.
7. Practice with expression: Every day you walk around making yourself into “you,” so do everything
with the proper attitude. Put all of yourself into participating and try to do your best, no matter how
insignificant the task may seem. Express your “style” through how you do what you do.
8. Learn from your mistakes: None of us are perfect, but donʼt be too hard on yourself. If you drop a
touchdown pass, or strike out to end the game, itʼs not the end of the world. Pick yourself up, analyze
what went wrong and keep going. Most people work in groups or as part of teams. If you focus on
your contributions to the overall effort, your personal mistakes wonʼt seem so terrible.
9. Donʼt show off: Itʼs hard to resist showing off when you can do something well. In high school, I
learned a breathing technique so I could play a continuous trumpet solo for 10 minutes without
stopping for a breath. But my father told me, “Son, those who play for applause, thatʼs all they get.”
When you get caught up in doing the tricky stuff, youʼre just cheating yourself and your audience.
10. Think for yourself: Your success or failure at anything ultimately depends on your ability to solve
problems, so donʼt become a robot.
Think about Dick Fosbury, who invented the Fosbury Flop for the high jump. Everyone used to run up
to the bar and jump over it forwards. Then Fosbury came along and jumped over the bar backwards,
because he could go higher that way.
Thinking for yourself helps develop your powers of judgment. Sometimes you may judge wrong and
pay the price; but when you judge right you reap the rewards.
11. Be optimistic: How you feel about the world expresses who you are. When you are optimistic,
things are either wonderful or becoming wonderful. Optimism helps you get over your mistakes and
go on to do better. It also gives you endurance because having a positive attitude makes you feel that
something great is always about to happen.
12. Look for connections: No matter what you practice, youʼll find that practicing itself relates to
everything else. It takes practice to learn a language, cook good meals or get along well with people.
If you develop the discipline it takes to become good at something, that discipline will help you in
whatever else you do. Itʼs important to understand that kind of connection. The more you discover the relationships between
things that at first seem different, the larger your world becomes. In other words, the woodshed can
open up a whole world of possibilities.