An interesting part of teaching has been getting the idea across to students that you can’t experience something until you actually experience it; and you can’t experience it until you can actually do it. As you don’t know what it’s like to sit on a horse until you sit on a horse, you don’t really know what it’s like to play something well until you actually play something well! And until you actually hear something, recognize it and play on it on your instrument the first time you try you haven’t experienced “playing by ear.” To learn these things, calm, relaxed and efficient practicing is necessary. There’s no way around this.
On a physical level, the purpose of practicing is to work out the kinks and hesitations to develop control over what you’re playing. To play with a tense body is like driving a car with the emergency brake on. Practicing too fast is like speeding through the mountains and screeching around the corners—you will most likely end up in a tree. You need to develop relaxed control before going fast—even with playing one note. Learn to relax when you play!
For ear training, practicing achieves a familiarity with sounds and what they are called. It’s similar to knowing what words mean verses being able to say them without understanding their definitions. An infant most likely doesn’t know what “green” is until someone points to something green and says “This is green.” It’s the same thing with ear training. You take some sounds, learn what they’re called and how to play them, then drill listening and identifying them. Then as you can know and recognize a few different colors or many of them, you learn to recognize a few musical sounds or hundreds of them: small vocabulary—large vocabulary.
A major part of learning the language of music is practicing at the right speed; the speed in which you can actually DO what it is, then through repetition gaining control and certainty. (And some things need to be repeated hundreds of times before you get it so be patient!) Then once you can do whatever it is you can get it faster and more fluid. Practicing too fast is probably the number one boo-boo students make.
There are many elements to the language, and until the pieces are put together the puzzle remains unfinished. When I teach I spend a great deal of time simply filling in the holes that people have in their puzzles and creating sequences of things to do to complete the picture: small picture or big picture.
Whether you are learning your first songs, learning to read or filling in the holes, find something you want to improve and create a realistic practice routine. Put your puzzle together piece by piece and eventually the picture will appear and you’ll speak more of the language of music.