1) Make a Music-Only Special Practice Place
Stake out a special designated place for practicing your music. You need a place where you practice your music, and nothing else. Only music is allowed here. This is the first step to a focused practice session. By designating a special place and clearing it of any non-musical distractions, you begin to associate that place with focused practice, and you be mentally prepared to get the most out of the time and energy you devote while you’re there.
If you don’t have enough space to set up a permanent music-only practice place, it is still important to set up a normal place where you can clear away other things and set-up a temporary music-only spot to do your practicing. This way, you can still benefit from the ritual focus of practicing in that designated place.
2) Keep All Your Supplies on Hand
Anything you will need to help your practice session should be in that special spot. Again, when you can keep your ‘music-only place’ well-stocked, it avoids distractions and interruptions that might derail your focus and your time. Supplies like pencils, pencil sharpener, eraser, paper, music notation charts, a binder with your music, metronome, music-playback device, recoding device, and any other electronic aids and specific accessories you regularly use – have them all ready, even if you think might not use some of them.
3) Keep Regularly Scheduled Practice Times
Unless you are particularly lucky and/or devoted, you don’t have an unlimited amount of time for practice. This is why is it so important to set regular time periods for practice.
First, if you actually schedule in a specific time of day, at scheduled points during the week, you are soooooo much more likely to actually have the time to get around to it. If you always plan to practice “when you find the time”, then you will never practice because no one ever “finds” time. Time isn’t just lying around! You have to make it happen. Unless a practice session is scheduled, it will most likely fall off the end of your long to-do list. So schedule it in, make it a regular time-demand which takes a certain amount of hours per week and per day. Treat your practice sessions like they’re actual paid work that you can’t just skip. If you miss a practice session, you have to make up the time somehow later on.
4) Got a Minute? – Practice!
Yes, regularly scheduled practice sessions are the best way to get focused practice under your belt. Yes, having a special music-only practice space will help you focus for the best learning environment. You know what else will help you practice? Practice! So even if you don’t have a scheduled practice time, and even if you don’t have everything organized just right, and even if you only have 5 minutes to spare: practice. If you play even a little bit every day, it will build up along the way.
Also, if you play a little bit every day you will find that you can ‘tread water’. Practicing is like swimming upstream: you have to keep putting in effort, or you will get swept backwards. If you leave too much time between practice sessions, you may find that you end up forgetting and losing a lot of the work that you did last time, and then you have to start over again and cover the same ground you already worked through. This can be frustrating and demoralizing. If you can fit in tiny practice sessions every day, wherever you’ve got a minute, then you are more likely to be able to at least tread water and stay in the same place until you make it to your next focused practice session.
This is harder than it seems. For most of us, there seems to be some mental block that prevents us from just going at it for a few minutes. I know I have it. You’ll have to push yourself. Remind yourself. Goad yourself. Let dinner simmer, and play that song. Stop on the way back from the bathroom, and run those scales. Take a 5 minute break from your desk, and work on that technique. It will help.
5) Have Specific Small-Scale Goals for Each Practice Session
When you do sit down to a focused practice session, what are you going to try to accomplish with that time? Figure that out before hand.
Before you begin, note how much time you have ahead of you, and set an explicit goal for the session. Sometimes your goal may simply be to practice all the songs you’re in the process of working with. Sometimes, you may chose a narrower focus, and try to master a particularly tricky part that you’ve been having trouble with. Maybe you have time to tackle both of those goals? Then set out a specific time for each and keep track with a timer. You only have a limited amount of attention and focus: use it wisely and your practice will be more useful. Setting goals for your practice sessions, you can certainly become more focused and effective, but that’s not all! By separating out the tasks that require discipline, focus, and technical attention from those that highlight ease, expression, and emotion it also helps you to have more fun!
6) Always Fit in some Fun and Focus
You are playing music because you love it. Playing music requires more than love, of course. There’s hard work involved, and it sometimes feels like a long road to get to the kind of music you imagine yourself loving to play. However, if you only focus on the hard and distant goals, then you may find yourself discouraged along the way. When you only work on the stuff that shows you how inadequate you are, you will inevitably feel inadequate. On the other hand, if you only practice the stuff you can already play well, then you may feel good about it for a moment but you won’t be getting any better. So, when you sit down for a practice session remember this division between fun and focus, and try to fit in some of both: play something you can play well, so you can have the feeling of being good – and also play something you can’t play well, so you can feel getting better. Both are vitally important to keeping your practice fun and focused.
7) Separate Time and Effort for Different Types of Practice
The distinction between fun and focus leads me to the next big point: all practice is not the same. There are many ways you can divide your goals and types of practice. How you do this will ultimately be up to you and your teacher. But in general, by devoting a certain amount of time to distinct goals, setting a timer to let you know when the allotted section is done and it’s time to move on to the next goal, you can sharpen and focus your practice aims.
For instance, I always tell my students to think of their practice goals in terms of three different types of practicing:
1) technical practice: warm-ups and exercises
2) performance practice: go through your well-practices pieces, those that you already know how to play relatively well, as if you were performing them for an audience;
3) learning practice: focusing on the details of new material and difficult passages that you are still in the process of mastering.
In any one practice session, you can then think about how you would divide up your time into periods devoted to specific goals associated with each of these types of practice: first, you may tell yourself, I’m going to do 10 minutes of technical practice on these scales (technical practice), then for another 10 minutes I’m going to play that song that I’ve almost got down perfect, trying to play the entire piece as a fully expressive performance (performative practice), and then I’m going to move on to spend 20 minutes of work on learning that new song (learning practice).
8 ) Take a Micro Focus and a Macro Focus
Don’t always play a song from the beginning through to the end. That is an exercise that fits into the performance practice type of practicing, where you are trying to work out an entire piece as a whole. This is what I call a macro focus. But there’s always some parts of any song that are more difficult than others, right? So when you practice the entire thing all the way through all the time, you are devoting equal time and energy to the easy parts and the hard parts. But the easy parts don’t really need as much attention, so by playing the whole song all the time you are neglecting to focus on the parts that do need more attention.
One big problem with always taking the macro focus is that you will begin to play the entire piece faster than you can manage the trickier parts. You will play the easier parts faster because they’re easier, but then when you arrive at the more difficult parts you put your ability to learn those passages at a disadvantage.
You can accomplish a lot more in a shorter period of time if you zero-in on those tricky passages and give them the individual space and attention they require. That is, separating out the hard parts for a specific micro focused session of learning practice. Set your timer for a short period (5 or 10 minutes), and use that time to take a microscopic focus on one problem area. Play the passage over and over, take it slow, break it down, then build it back up again. If by the end of your set period of time you are still struggling to overcome this section, then make a note so you can come back to it during your next practice session. Don’t dwell in the micro, it can get very isolating and discouraging there. Just give it the small bursts of focused attention it so desperately craves, and it will inevitably improve with time.
9) Record Yourself, Listen to Yourself
This is simple but amazingly useful. Use whatever technology you have available (phone, computer, or whatever) to record yourself playing a full performance. Listen to yourself. You will hear the piece very differently, and the feedback will give you new ideas about where to send your micro focused practice.
10) Stretch – Before, After, and In-Between
Playing an instrument is a deeply physical activity. However, practicing often feels like the endless repetition of a mental exercise, and you may forget about every other part of your body other than the fingers on your strings, the straining in your voice, or the rhythm of your limbs. Stretch! Remember your body. Before a practice session, do some general full-body stretches, as well as some stretches specific to the physical requirements of your instrument. Do them again at the end of your practice session. You will feel better and play better. If you are practicing for anytime longer than 30 minutes, take a small 5-minute break every 25-30 minutes: get up, walk around a bit, get some fresh air, drink some water, and repeat those stretches. Staying in one place and one position for too long will stiffen both your mind and your body.
11) Practice Even When You’re Not
There are so many ways you can practice everywhere, even when you’re not in full practice-mode. Sing your songs to yourself in the shower. Tap out a rhythm on the subway. Imagine the process as you read through the music in your mind. Take the music score with you and read through it while picturing the motions of playing your instrument. Imagine yourself playing a piece, all the way through, step by step, without skipping a beat or missing a note. Listen to recordings of your pieces by other musicians as well as from your own practice performances. Take the music with you wherever you go, and it will grow.
12) Keep Swimming — Good Practice Habits Require Perseverance
It can take a while to develop new practice habits, and it may sometimes feel like a long, cold, upstream swim to get to that place where you will be a master of your instrument. If you fall out of practice, don’t give up. Keep swimming! Even if you can work just one of these tips into your practice regimen, you will get more out of your practicing than ever before.
Remember music is a journey, not a destination. So enjoy the journey, stay focused and patient. Through good practice and perseverance, you will inevitably find yourself becoming a better musician.