by Stan Munslow on 11/02/15

Some time ago, a friend of mine hired me to do the improvised lead guitar solos for his latest recording project. The songs, all originals, were already recorded, so I told him I would listen to each tune once and then do a “practice take” to get a feel for the music. By then, I hoped to feel comfortable enough to try a real take.

After the solos were recorded – some of which required four or five takes – I listened to a playback and was stunned to discover that my friend had secretly told the engineer to record only my practice takes. And it was these that were used in the final mix, not the polished and precise final takes!

I was more than a little upset and asked him why he’d done that. “I like the energy of the first take,” he said. “Being on edge, as musicians usually are on first takes, brings out an excitement I like, even if the results aren’t as flawless as on later takes. There’s a spark that tends to disappear after you’ve grown too comfortable with the music.”

In time I came to realize that these solos were among my best, rough around the edges and all.

The concept of over-practicing is a controversial one. If, after considering this point of view that it is possible to practice too much and subsequently damage the piece, you still feel that a precision crafted song is always best, then you should continue to do what works for you. Classical music, for example, demands perfection and has little tolerance for sloppiness. And there will be other times as well when this will turn out to be the best approach.

But there are times when it isn’t. We can literally practice the life out of songs by sanitizing every single scratch, dent, and character line right out of them. The result can remind the listener of a photo in which the model’s imperfect skin has been airbrushed into unrealistic perfection, making him or her look somewhat less than human. Audiences probably wouldn’t notice many of the imperfections you scoured out. But if you’ve practiced your music to the point that you’ve grown bored by it, they will notice your lack of enthusiasm.

How do you know if you’ve over-practiced? You’ve over-practiced when the thrill begins to disappear; when you’re just not as into playing the song as you once were. Or if you find yourself making more mistakes than before. If you ever see yourself at this point, my advice is to put that song aside, at least for a few days, and let it clear itself out of your head. If you really still have more work to do on it you can always pick it up again later, hopefully with a fresh perspective and some newfound enthusiasm.

Whether or not you are over-practicing is, in many cases, a judgment call, and it can take a while to develop a knack for knowing when you’re going over the edge on a piece. For now, at least be aware of the fact that, to many a listener’s ears there is such a thing as over-practicing and that they will often prefer imperfection to tedium on your part.

And that’s the other side of that coin.

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