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To clarify the title, I'm not asking if it helps your mandolin skills to play violin (or vice versa, whichever you feel is "more difficult").

Let's say you are a guitarist: Does it help or hurt to practice on a really difficult to play guitar? For example, one with horrible action where you have to press down very hard with your fret fingers.

I've always been of the opinion that it helps your performance because of how good it feels to go from a crappy instrument to a good one. However, that might be purely psychological, and in fact playing the "worse" guitar might lead to bad habits.

I've noticed the same thing about playing drums: going from practicing on a crappy drum kit and then playing a nice one makes you feel like your skills have instantly improved. For example on the bad kit, I have to hit the snare dead-center to get a good sound. On the good kit it seems like it doesn't matter where I play it - it always sounds good.

I'm teaching myself to play piano, and I'm purposely using one with really "tight", difficult to press keys for practice.

I'm aware of how general this question is, but is there any evidence or accepted opinion about this?

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7 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

When you practice playing an instrument, you are practicing playing that particular instrument.

If you were a brass player, for example, you would NEVER want to spend all of your time practicing on a crappy instrument with wonky tuning and then do the gig on your $3,000 horn. Even if you sound pretty good on the crap instrument, you would be changing too many variables when switching, and you'd likely sound worse. For most instruments, that is, those that you carry with you wherever you go, you should practice on the instrument you want to perform on.

Piano is a different story, since most pianists will not take their instrument with them when they travel. For this reason, pianists must be able to adapt to the instrument they will be performing on with little or no warmup time. In fact, pianists in conservatory will have a few dozen different practice rooms to choose from, and will sign up for time on a variety of pianos each week to stay agile and not get too used to one particular instrument's action or feel.

Now, my first comment about wind instruments is specifically geared towards practicing for performance or recital. If you are just practicing in general and have a few different instruments to choose from, there's no harm in switching around--there will probably be different techniques that are more evident on different instruments, and that can be useful for practice.

A few guitar-specific things I thought of: playing an instrument with a scalloped fretboard, as long as you're staying alert to your tuning, can be great training for your ear and finger dexterity. Playing an instrument with tightly-strung heavy gauge strings will improve your finger strength. Just switch back and forth from your nylon string to your steel string regularly so you don't forget the lighter touch necessary to play the nylon string properly (without being out of tune from mashing the strings too hard).

What I strongly recommend AGAINST doing is practicing on an instrument that is in disrepair just because it is more difficult to play. That is NOT going to help you, except to develop bad habits to compensate for the instrument.

What constitutes disrepair? Any mechanical part that does not move cleanly when it is supposed to, I would consider to be in disrepair. This includes stuck tuning slides, sticky valves, sticking pads, sticking keys or dampers, connectors or fasteners that are stuck in place. If an instrument cannot be tuned to pitch any longer, I would consider it to be in disrepair. For your 'guitar with terrible action' question, I would say if the action can be improved, by all means do so; otherwise the instrument has likely reached the end of its usable lifespan.

TL;DR: If you're a pianist, be able to play on whatever instrument you find yourself in front of. For everyone else, practice for performance on the instrument you plan to perform on, and never play instruments that don't work properly.

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I appreciate this fantastic answer, it shows a good deal of insight into what I was thinking. I am indeed practicing on instruments that are in some state of disrepair, on purpose, to make practicing more of a challenge (sadly, including out of tune piano). I kind of figured "Hey, if I can sound good on this piece of crap I'll sound great on a real one". In some ways it's true, but it's probably not helping in reality - just in my own mind. –  Wesley Murch Jul 29 '12 at 3:25
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If you play on a very badly set up guitar with thick strings, you will get certain "low level" benefits like better strength and calluses. (Or, on the contrary, end up injured.)

A poor guitar's bad intonation and tuning stability will stunt the development of your sense of pitch. An instrument's poor tone will not lead you to appreciate the production of a good tone.

If the poor instrument limits how nimbly you can play notes, yet you doggedly persevere on that instrument, you will not be suddenly nimble when you switch to a proper instrument. The poor instrument will stunt your progress, because it will interfere with your ability to train your brain. As months turn to years, you will fall behind where you could have been with a proper instrument.

Deftness in music performance begins with the brain and spinal column, but how it gets there during rehearsal is via the fingers. The brain needs the fingers to execute its idea, at the desired speed. And that must be repeated so that the phrases you are rehearsing are promoted out of the conscious brain into the subsconcious. If the fingers cannot execute what the brain wants to hear, then this cycle of practice is broken. Therefore, a poor instrument hampers the quality of your practice.

Say, if you want to run a fast 10K footrace, do you think it would be wise to do all your training with a 70 pound backpack, and in combat boots? Experiments like that have been carried out and confirm that excess weight and handicaps spoil a runner's economy. There is an increase in fitness which doesn't translate to speed because the muscles have learned new motions which compensate for the baggage. A few weeks of training without the baggage are needed to recover the running economy and reap the benefit from the loaded-down training. Similarly, it may be beneficial to pick up a hard-to-play guitar from time to time, just for strength. Electric guitarists can benefit from sometimes picking up an acoustic guitar whose strings are a couple of gauges heavier.

Pro musicians who are widely acclaimed for their skill all have playable, well set-up instruments. Legends like "such and such virtuoso guitar player uses bridge cables which are a foot off the neck" are just that: legends. Don't buy into the nonsense.

Lastly, that old adage "`tis a poor musician who blames his instrument" contains an important key phrase: "his instrument". If you can shred on your well-made and adjusted instrument, but suck on someone else's poor instrument, the adage does not apply, because it is not your instrument. This adage has a flipside: the poor musician who blames his instrument is actually right in that his problems really are caused by the instrument, but plodding along with that instrument is part of what makes him a poor musician.

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I agree - I occasionally practice on a guitar with an incredibly heavy action - and I can feel it help when I go back to my light ones. It builds up a bit of finger strength. –  Dr Mayhem Feb 1 '13 at 7:59
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I think you have to take each instrument case by case. I definitely think every pianist should have experience on pianos with different weighting. However, if playing on a not-so-great instrument forces you to form bad habits, these will transfer over to a good instrument and make it sound horrible. A little adaption is good and sometimes necessary, because one is then more prepared to play other instruments. A piano with difficult-to-press-keys can force you to always hit the keys harder. Playing pianissimo will then be difficult when you go back to a better piano. A really bad instrument is often more detrimental than beneficial because of the habits it forms. Per the comments, a good drummer should try to hit the center. If a particular snare forces you to hit the center, it will enhance your technique (disclaimer-- I am not a drummer). I'm not sure about your guitar example, though (I don't play myself). Many cheap or badly made wind instruments can force the musician to blow to hard. This can give them stronger lungs, but it will also decrease the amount one learns in that period because of always running out of breath.

My conclusion is that a little worse is not all that bad. In fact, it can sometimes be beneficial, more so with some cases than with others. Sometimes it will make your abilities stagnate. If you go to the extreme and get a barely functional instrument, it will definitely be detrimental to your technique.

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Yeah I feared the question was too general, but nonetheless this makes sense to me. Although there is some getting used to going from the "difficult" piano to the "easy/good" one, it seems like it only takes a minute or two to get control. As far as the snare thing, in general you want to hit as close to center as possible so it actually helped quite a bit. Your wind instrument example, to me, seems like a good thing because it helps your endurance (which, I would assume, is part of the goal of practicing - but I don't play any so I'm not sure how much this matters). –  Wesley Murch Jul 27 '12 at 21:40
You have some good points. I wasn't sure about the snare thing - only limited experience watching drummers. The wind instrument example, however, is from personal experience. When you have to concentrate too much one the problem, you can't focus on learning. That and bad technique can be the worst problems with playing not-so-great instruments. –  American Luke Jul 27 '12 at 21:58
Probably important to have a piano that's in tune too - other wise your relative pitch might not develop well. That's perhaps not so important on instruments with smooth changes between tones (ie. unfretted like a double bass, or with a slide, lieka trombone - is there a word for that?), where you have to learn relative pitch if you want to play the instrument at all. –  naught101 Jul 28 '12 at 1:50
@naught101: That's a great point that I actually didn't consider. –  Wesley Murch Jul 29 '12 at 3:28
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From my experience, it depends very much on the instrument.

I experience the very same thing on drums as you describe, I play my kit at home, then play someone else's (who is a much better and more developed drummer than I am) and I suddenly feel much more advanced playing on his beautiful snare, shimmering cymbals and booming toms.

However, playing guitars are different. Because guitar playing is much more personal to you, you need to get used to the feel on the instrument, as you are having a lot more precise contact with it. Therefore practising on different instruments can have an effect on your playing (or that's what I've found).

Take my situation. I appreciate acoustic and electric guitars are in no way the same, both stylistically and musically, but the differing feel and set-up of the different instruments helps me to illustrate my point. I have an acoustic in my room, and play electric when I have time, in the shed outside (stops my family complaining). My acoustic is a Yamaha, with heavy strings and a moderately high action. My electric has a much lower action, with lighter D'addarios. I play my acoustic whenever I am at a loose end in my room, practising solos, tricky songs and riffs on it (often ones that were written for an electric). I them play them on my Tele, and find I have a lot more difficulty playing them at correct speed without mistakes.

I put this down to my fingers being used to applying more pressure and firmness to the strings on my acoustic; when I transfer to electric, that pressure and firmness is not required as much, therefore my fingers slip, and I'm feeling tense when playing.

As a result, I'm currently looking into purchasing a semi-hollowbody guitar, and fitting heavier strings, to give it more the feel of an acoustic.

Regarding your original question, I think going from a bad instrument to a good one is different from going from a good one to a bad. Learning on a difficult one means you have to develop habits in order to play it well, which may not transfer over to a better set-up instrument very well.

I find on bass, it's somewhere in-between, I can play other people's instruments fine, but I prefer playing my own, feeling much more at home, and therefore my playing improves. As Stephen says, it's your baby.

Because on guitars, there are so many things that can vary; action, string gauge, fretboard feel, neck radius, string spacing, therefore when you get settled on one particular combination, you have to deal with adjusting to another combination as well as playing your stuff on the new instrument, hence your playing will change (and in my case suffer!).

Ok, essay over, just a collection of my thoughts, as I am considering this topic a lot more recently due to my current guitar plans that I mentioned. Thanks for listening!

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If you are going to play a classic acoustic nylon guitar forever, there's no need to ever practice on a steel 12-string. In the extreme case it might even make the musculature of your fingers more coarse and decrease your dexterity.

At the same time, the rich sound of the 12-string might also increase your awareness of tone and also your ability to express yourself musically.

Play the instruments you enjoy. Explore new instruments occasionally.

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I'm teaching myself to play piano, and I'm purposely using one with really "tight", difficult to press keys for practice.

I don't think you are doing yourself much of a favor with that. Piano playing is more than striking the right keys at the right time: the piano is a much more expressive instrument than, say, a harpsichord. A good player can work with different phrasing and subtle in-voice and in-phrase dynamics in order to arrive at a transparent and emotional rendition of a piece. That's a major part of what piano playing is about.

An instrument that offers unreliable or inconsistent response and forces you to keep away from light play will actively keep you from developing the finer points of expressivity and playing, leaving you with the kind of "robust" piano play one often hears from teeth-bristling mothers accompanying their young on some solo instrument.

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i dunno about real evidence, but opinion wise... unless you NEED to go around playing a bunch of different instruments, I'd suggest you get ONE that is ALL your's. Your baby. There should be a tight bond between human and instrument, IMO. I play piano, and I don't really care how I sound on other peoples'. I care how I sound on mine. Therefor, it's a stage type of digital. I don't yet gig, but hope to some day.

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I disagree. Adaptability is an important quality of a musician. –  American Luke Jul 27 '12 at 21:35
Well for one thing, I noticed that practicing on a lightweight keyboard with small keys required some extra effort when I wanted to play the same thing on a regular piano. Then the opposite, going from playing piano back to the keyboard, made it seem like a piece of cake. Currently I have no less than 4 pianos that I play, because I can't exactly move them around at will. –  Wesley Murch Jul 27 '12 at 21:35
when you say "small keys" you don't mean the terrible "mini" sized keys on toy digitals, do you? You just mean fewer than 88 keys I hope. I can go along with adaptability being important. But so's the bond between player and instrument. –  Stephen Hazel Jul 27 '12 at 21:50
No I didn't mean the "toy" keyboards for little kids, I meant a regular keyboard (as opposed to a digital piano) where the keys aren't quite as wide and aren't weighted. Although I do love those little mini Casios from the 80's ^_^ –  Wesley Murch Jul 27 '12 at 21:59
If you go from a piano to a "plastic touch" synthesizer, it may be the case that there is less effort, but your timing will be off. Although the action of pianos is "heavy", in a sense, it is not the same as an unplayable guitar. Astonishing levels of virtuosity are achieved on pianos. –  Kaz Feb 1 '13 at 6:19
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