The Practice Notebook

flutist Zara Lawler shares tips on learning music

Process, not Progress


When you are careful to work on small sections, but the piece you are learning is really long, do you get worried that you’ll never learn it all? How do you keep yourself from COMPLETELY FREAKING OUT when you have a lot to learn?

In my experience, there is solace (and better yet, long-term benefit) in the idea of process, not progress.

I heard that phrase from my teacher, Carol Wincenc, when I was first learning a lot of music from memory.  Process, not progress is a particularly useful mantra for memorization, but over the years, I have found it to have many other applications, both for the day-to-day measuring of work and for long-term satisfaction and mastery in music.

To demonstrate this principle in the day-to-day, I’d like to use a sports analogy.  If you are a runner, you have a choice of how to tally up your training.  You can measure how much time you spend running, or you can measure how many miles you have run.  Similarly, you can measure how many minutes you spend practicing, or how far you have gotten in a piece. In order to value process over progress in music, I suggest that you practice for time (10 minutes of thoughtful work on this phrase) not “distance” (I’m going to practice till I nail this phrase, dammit!). You can use it on a larger scale as well:  “I’ll practice each piece for thirty minutes a day,” rather than “I’ll practice until I’ve mastered these pieces.”

In your daily practice, process not progress allows you to make wise choices about what and how to practice, and can make some decisions, like taking a break when you need one, or sticking to your small section, all the more easy. Taking a break becomes as much a part of the process of good practice as playing your instrument. Focusing on process can help you battle the temptation to bite off a big chunk of music instead of a small section.

This principle is equally important over the long term.  If you put in the time, with a sound process, progress will take care of itself.  Not only will you eventually learn all the notes, but with each passing practice session, you will become a better musician and a better instrumentalist.  If you do the opposite, practicing just for progress (getting all the right notes), process does not take care of itself. In fact, process is often compromised that way:  as you search for a quick way to get through a passage, you limit your ability to get thoroughly into the music, and to fully engage your instrument.  You do not become a good musician that way, only a good player-of-a-certain-piece.

When memorizing, it is very tempting to set concrete goals (I will learn the exposition today, and half the development tomorrow).  The problem is that memorization is so tricky and slippery.  In my experience, it just does not work to set that kind of goal when memorizing.  Successful memorization requires deep attention to small details, and it is impossible to achieve that quality of focus when you are thinking “Gotta learn the whole page…gotta learn the whole page…”

Process, not progress has implications for your performance as well—if you have practiced a process-oriented mindset, you are more able to be in the flow of the moment on stage than if you are fixated on progress.  Music performance is, in a sense, an artful way of carrying your audience through time with you. Process allows you to enjoy that journey—progress rewards only the destination.

PS.  As for completely freaking out, remember that process not progress means not constantly checking your daily work against your long-term goal.  Progress will take care of itself if you focus on the process. Remind yourself any way you need to—write it in your practice notebook, repeat it like a mantra, embroider it on a pillow…

Photo credits:  Runners’ feet by Josiah Mackenzie;  Process surrounded by progress by nattu

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5 Comments to

“Process, not Progress”

  1. On August 2nd, 2010 at 4:55 pm gottagopractice Says:

    I spent my last cello lesson discussing this very thing. There is a big difference between learning a piece of music you can easily grasp in total, and one that covers multiple pages and multiple sections and multiple new skills, especially the first time. Learning what process IS adds another fascinating layer of complexity, and can be frankly discouraging. Coming out of the intermediate wasteland requires a huge dose of faith, for how do you know that process is going to work until you have experienced it? Your post is tremendously encouraging.

  2. On August 18th, 2010 at 8:13 pm The Practice Notebook » Blog Archive » Inspiration from John Steinbeck Says:

    [...] I was going through some old notes and quotes the other day, and came across this one from East of Eden, which I think is a nice follow-up for Process, not Progress. [...]

  3. On August 19th, 2010 at 1:46 pm Cathy Says:

    Zadie, I love your practice notebook!!! Keep up the wonderful and inspiring entries!!

  4. On August 19th, 2010 at 7:44 pm admin Says:

    Cathy, thanks for reading and commenting. Great to see you at the NFA.

  5. On February 4th, 2011 at 8:11 pm The Practice Notebook » Blog Archive » Memorizing a Whole Program Says:

    [...] Process, not Progress [...]

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