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5 Tips for Better Practicing

One frequent question I hear as a music teacher is, “How long should I practice?”  I smile every time this comes up because it means spending time on one of my favorite topics: productive practicing.  As someone guilty of many wasted practice hours, I’m happy to help others avoid the mistakes I’ve made.  Productive practicing also translates to many areas of life beyond music; so I believe that every student reaps long-term benefits from learning to practice well, regardless of how long their musical education lasts.  Here are the first things I cover with my students on the topic of practicing.

Find a consistent time and stick to it.

If you don’t plan to practice, you probably won’t do it — and you definitely won’t be consistent about it.  And if you aren’t consistent, the rest of these tips will be of minimal value.  In short: plan to practice and stick to the plan.  The best way to remember to practice is to do it at the same time every day, so choose a time you know you can stick to.  For many this is early in the morning, but it doesn’t matter if it’s 10pm provided you have sufficient brainpower to concentrate.

Focus on tasks, not time.

While assigning a specific amount of practice time is useful for young/beginning students, I generally encourage task-oriented rather than time-oriented practicing.  Instead of planning to practice an hour a day, plan to accomplish certain goals during each practice session.  These goals need to be specific: i.e. “Learn left hand for first page of Bach” or “Memorize last page of Beethoven” or “Figure out fingering for second page of Brahms.”  If you step into the practice room with no clear idea of what you need to do, you’ll end up just “massaging the keys” (or strings, or mouthpiece) and/or watching the clock (I speak from experience).

Keep a journal

I don’t always do this, but I’ve found journaling useful for certain periods of time when I either had a lot of music to get through or was feeling particularly unproductive. I also assign “practice journals” for practically all my students at one point, which is very revealing in terms of personal habits and style. It’s simple: after each practice session, write down what you did. It’s a great way to keep track of progress with your goals. (Also, having to commit your practice to paper makes you plan a little better to start with.)

Deal with your demon.

If you always sound good in the practice room, you aren’t practicing the right things. Know what gives you trouble and start with your problem spots.  I love violinist Pamela Frank’s advice:

Don’t practice ten hours a day. Practice two hours without the TV on, and attack your demon. Don’t practice what you already do well. There are people with great tone working on their tone, and people with great intonation practicing scales all day. A lot of people waste a lot of time thinking that sheer number of hours matters, rather than the quality of the practicing.

Take a break

If you are practicing correctly, you’re expending considerable mental energy. A concentrated 2-hour practice session can be more tiring than a 5-mile run. Get up at least every half-hour to stretch and just clear your mind. This is especially critical when you’re drilling a passage or practicing something familiar — times when it’s easy to slip into mindless routine.

And when you’re done practicing — be done practicing. Daily practice is vital, yes — but it is only part of what makes you a better musician. The best musicians I know live balanced, diverse lives. We can’t communicate fully what we haven’t experienced.

(Photo: lucas)


1 Wendy { 08.17.10 at 4:28 pm }

Good advice. I wonder which of your students asked that? (snicker snicker). Definitely have to return to this post for reference!

2 Shirley { 08.17.10 at 8:18 pm }

Excellent post! You reminded me of my old piano professor except the TV part. Before my recital, she made me practice with radio on to “really focus”. That was pure torture. : )

3 rushyama { 08.18.10 at 3:46 pm }

Haha, my teacher did something similar — rattling papers, coughing, talking…someday I’m sure I’ll do the same!

@Wendy, I think practically ALL my students have asked me the time question!

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