“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice!” You’ve heard that one, right? Well, it’s a truism that we shouldn’t forget as musicians. If you want to improve on your instrument, practicing is 90% of the process. (We’ll get into the other 10% later) So here are 10 music practice tips to make the most out of your practice time.
1. Set goals for your practice time
One of the least effective things you can do is go into your practice room and just sit down and start playing. In order to make the most of your time, you need to make a plan as to what it is that you need to and want to accomplish in that time. Do you want to memorize a piece? Do you need to figure out the fingerings of that melismatic passage in one of your pieces? Do you need to work on the breath stamina of a particularly difficult phrase? If you go into the practice room with a goal in mind, you will be focused and motivated to attain that goal.
2. Keep a practice log
Going along with the previous tip, when you set your goals, write them down and then when you are finished practicing, write down whether you accomplished your goal or not.
3. Break up your practice time into smaller increments
Your teacher may say that you must practice three hours a day. But that doesn’t mean that you have to lock yourself in a practice room for three hours straight! Practicing effectively requires concentration and focus and that can be very fatiguing. If you break that three hours into three 1-hour sessions, you will be more focused in each session and use your time more effectively. This is also instrument specific because whereas a pianist might have the physical stamina to play for two hours straight, that is not recommended for a singer.
4. Remember that practicing is NOT just about playing through your music
Yes, certainly there will be times when you are preparing for a performance and you need to play through your entire piece to check memorization and gain stamina. But in the process of learning and perfecting a piece, playing through your piece from beginning to end can actually hinder your progress. If you still have technical difficulties or memorization mistakes, by playing through your pieces you are simply ingraining those mistakes into your muscle memory. It will be twice as hard to get rid of those mistakes in the long run. Perfect small sections of your piece and then string a few small sections together to make a longer section.
5. Repetition is key
In order to break a habit, you need to do something the correct way 100 times. So every time you miss a note in that melismatic passage, you are going to have to repeat that passage the correct way 100 times! Break large passages up into smaller passages and repeat them correctly until they become part of your muscle memory.
6. Make sure your practice room is set up for effective practicing
You want your practice room to be free of distractions and set up with the tools you need to practice efficiently. Make sure it is quiet (without tv, computers, ipods) and at a comfortable temperature. Make sure the room has enough light. Turn off your phone so you are not tempted to check your messages and get calls. Make sure you have a metronome, pencils, a tuner (if you need one), a mirror, your music and technique books, your practice log, some water and any instrument specific accessories.
7. Warm up mindfully
Make sure that you always start your practice with warmups. But don’t just run through your exercises for the prerequisite amount of time while thinking about what you are going to have for dinner that day (or enter any random thought here). The purpose of warming up is not simply to get your muscles moving. It is in the warm up that your are solidifying your technique. You are preparing your body and your mind for the work and you must be “present.” Before you start an exercise remind yourself of why you are doing that particular exercise. As you go through the exercise, be aware of how you are feeling, how you are breathing, if your body is alerting you to tension, etc. Keep your mind in the game at all times – even through the tedious stuff.
8. Record yourself
By recording your practice sessions – audio and/or video – you can listen back and catch some things you may miss in the moment. Listening to yourself can help you find tone issues, watching yourself can alert you to tension issues that you didn’t know you had and much more. OK, I’ll let you break a part of tip 6….you can turn your phone on to record yourself. But don’t check your messages!
9. Remember that practicing isn’t just about playing your instrument
You need to practice your instrument but you must also practice your artistry and you must engage your intellect. That means that practice also involves listening to great artists perform your repertoire and analyzing what makes them so great. Practice involves studying the history and performance practice of a particular piece. Practice involves translating the text of a song and speaking that text with meaning in it’s original language. Being a musician is about much more than just learning how to play the notes. You need to add time every day on top of the time in the practice room to expand your knowledge of your music, your instrument and your artistry.
10. Practice something EVERY DAY
It is better to practice 20 minutes every day that 2 hours on only one day of the week. If you can’t put in three hours every day, that is fine. But commit to working on your instrument, even if one day you only warmup and don’t touch your repertoire, every single day. That consistency will pay off!