As a musicians, we spend many weeks and months relentlessly practicing to become the best musician we can be. Yet so often we feel lost in our practice, aimlessly playing through things over an over or going through the motions without considering how or why we are doing it. Even those of us who believe that we have developed fantastic practice habits tend to forget the basics and slip back into unhealthy and unproductive patterns. I know, really, I know all about this struggle! So, I like to remind myself of some of the basics of productive practicing that have really helped transform my practicing over the years.
1. Short practice sessions
This seems so obvious to me now, because I have been doing this for quite some time, but there was a time when I thought you had to practice for hours at a time, without any breaks. I believed that if I was not doing this I was being lazy and undisciplined. One day I asked a friend of mine, who had the most incredible ability to learn pieces extremely quickly, how he practiced to achieved this. He told me that he practiced for about 25-30 minutes at a time and took a 5 minute break in between. I started doing this and was amazed by the results. I was able to remain so much more focused and productive for these short spaces of time and could practice for so much longer than before.
Now I have created a carefully thought-out system. I practice in short sessions with smalls breaks in between and after about 1-2 hours of this, I take a slightly longer break. This is, of course, only a rough idea and different increments of time will work better for different people. Some may need longer sessions or breaks and other even shorter ones. It may also change slightly from day to day or week to week. You need to learn to listen to your body. Are you getting physically tired? Is your concentration going? Then it is time to take a break! Seriously, stop playing and get out of your head. Move, stretch, scream, nap or do whatever it takes to revitalize your energies. Research has shown that musicians that practice with breaks have much better physical and mental health. Think about it. Does it not make more sense to channel all your energy into short concentrated sessions, than go on with a weakening mind and body until you are completely broken? Be strict with yourself, take those breaks!
2. Organize your space
This, I underestimate almost daily. So often, we dive into practice without preparing the space we are about to work in. Invariably, we just start practicing and realize what we need as we go, but because we are in the “middle of practice” we do not fetch it. The classic “Oh well, I don’t have a pencil right now…I will just mark that in my score later” or “I should practice with a metronome, but I have no idea where it is. I will do it later!” ensures that our practicing is inefficient and never quite as thorough as it should be. Make sure you have everything you need before you start to work: a pencil, a metronome, a notebook perhaps and a glass of water (sometimes chocolate even helps). You are about to begin a process of work and creation and will need all your tools at your fingertips. This will help you to get your mind into the right space and avoid any distractions later, making your work more productive. No more excuses or unnecessary procrastination!
3. Set goals
This is where the notebook may come in handy. Set a goal at the beginning of each practice session or even for the entire day. Practicing without a goal is like driving somewhere without knowing were you are going. You may find it eventually by chance or intuition, but it would really be easier if you had looked at a map before you left. Write down what your problem areas are and take one or two of them on, as a challenge for the day. So, for example think: “Today I want to work on my low register playing” or “I am working on my intonation in this practice session.” This helps you define and focus your practice efforts, making your practice more productive and accelerating your rate of progress. You will also be amazed how creative this allows you to become. Which brings me to my next point.
4. Be creative, experiment
Stop waiting for your teacher to tell you how to practice something. Rather see if you can find creative and fun ways to do this on your own. Then show your teacher what you have discovered or ask advice if you are really stuck. Not only will your practicing be so much more fun than you can imagine, but you will see how much more you can get out of your teacher when they see that you are working so independently and with such insight. This ability gets better and better over time but make it a goal. Look at a problem and think: “How can I solve this creatively?” See if you can fix a technical problem by coming up with your own innovative exercise. Develop your own musical interpretation by thinking up stories for the pieces you are playing or writing an accompanying poem or prose for the piece. Improvise from time to time, experiment with different phrasing or even different dynamics. Be curious and create. Don’t just regurgitate!
5. Positive mind space
Research is showing how connected the body and the mind are. Stress and emotional strain cause muscle tension. This hinders, in a very physical way, our ability to play and practice our instruments at the level we are accustomed to. Additionally, our thought patterns influence our actions. How we think about our practice and playing directly impacts the outcome of it. As Henry Ford put it: "Whether you think you can, or you think you can't--you're right." Cheesy, I know, but do yourself a favor and do some research on Neuro-Linguistic Programming on YouTube. This is no longer just esoteric ramblings but techniques that are used in performance coaching of many different professionals form sports to business leaders.
To really understand the effects of negativity, spend some time observing what your practice session is like when you are feeling negative, stressed or unhappy. How are you feeling physically? What thoughts are going through your head? How are your emotions contributing to your focus and productivity? Compare this to when you are feeling positive and motivated. The negative voice tends to say: "I cannot do this. This is too difficult", while the positive says "Ah yes, a new challenge! Let's go for it." The one wants to solve the problem, the other has no intentions to even try. When you make this connection you will never want to go negatively into a practice session again. It does happen, but there are ways we can intercept this. Do something that relieves stress and anxiety before you practice. Lead a balanced and healthy lifestyle. Stop your negative thoughts in their tracks. Train your brain to be positive right before you practice. When you do get these thoughts during practice, stop. Don't allow yourself to go on. Your practice time is sacred and beautiful so honor it and value it.
Give it a try! Not everything works for everyone but if you stay committed to adopting some of these techniques you may be amazed how your practicing can transform. Let me know how it goes and leave questions or comments below. Happy practicing!