Updated: Nov 30, 2020
Oh practicing… How I often avoid thee; how I desperately need thee. After a lot of trial, error, and success, these are my treasured practicing tips to guide your music-making process.
Make a plan
Know what you want to accomplish before you begin your practice sesh. You can’t achieve your goals if you don’t define them, ya know? I didn’t start planning my practice goals until a dear singer friend of mine asked me, “well, what are your goals for tomorrow when you practice?” I had no clue that I could do that! I thought you just had to feel out which pieces were stressing you out the most and practice accordingly.
Disengage with technology and social media
Aka PUT YOUR PHONE ON DANG AIRPLANE MODEPhones are tempting. They give us serotonin. They make us believe we’re not alone in the tiny practice room. They help me procrastinate endlessly. After a few minutes without my phone, I don’t miss the notifications and I find my attention more and more interested in what I can accomplish next.
Stretch and breathe
Hi, hello. Are you a human alive in 2020? Yes? Ok. Stop. Deep breath in….. Hold it… and let it go. It’s just always a good idea to take a deep breath, reach for the sky, and remember you have a spine. Feel your feet on the ground and feel the earth supporting you. (So nice of her!)
Remember what good posture feels like. Shake any bad juju out of you. Sigh, scream, yell, stretch. This is your time to dedicate yourself to being a better human and musician so do whatever feels good and release anything you don’t need while you practice. Yoga is a great tool!
I have struggled with holding tension for a long time; I typically try to have a heavy, relaxed feeling while I play as often as I can. Remembering to breathe always helps.
Manage your time and take breaks using the Pomodoro Technique
I try to work for 20-25 minutes and then take a 5-minute break then repeat this a few times. After the third or fourth 20-minute work session, you get a longer break! Yippee!! I recently learned this technique has a name and it is Italian for tomato, which is also my favorite food. I hope you use this because it truly has changed my burdensome bulky practice sessions into inspired and curious Pomodoro practicing.
Check your feedback loop
Mental health check: Ok, pause. We've talked about a lot of different ways you can make practicing suck less. Being overly self-critical will always make practicing suck, and none of these other techniques will really make that much of a difference if there’s an unsupportive bully running the show inside your head?
I know this because I tend to give myself feedback based on unrealistic expectations. It’s something I have to work on and here are my tips for getting outta that nasty space:
Remember that perfection is boring and being curious and creative is so much more fun (and it makes for really good art too).
Remember how you couldn’t play that one thing 5 years ago?
Remember when you were a toddler and you couldn’t do anything??
Take time to remember where you’ve come from and recognize that you are amazing.
Use tons of variety while you practice
Your brain is going to thank you when you choose to practice things in a way that keeps it on its toes. Repetition is fine (and sometimes necessary) but I find I learn music faster when I change the rhythms - you can swing it, make the first half of every bar twice as slow, anything you can come up with. Have fun with this!
A wonderful cellist friend told me that she practices scales with a metronome and changes the subdivision every beat. Brilliant!
Work smarter, not harder
Take this however it makes the most sense for you. What it means for me is if something feels hard then I’m probably making it hard. That can mean I’m telling myself a story such as “it has to go this tempo,” or there’s a lot of pressure to get something polished TODAY and of course that makes the task seem IMPOSSIBLE. Focus on what needs work, and then assess how to make progress.
Roadblocks are an opportunity to get curious about the problem, take a step back, and start again with a new approach.
You don’t have to do everything right now: Work smarter not harder
I cannot speak for single line instruments, but as a pianist, I always struggle when I’m trying to do so much at once. It’s a daunting task! Baby steps. Walk before you can run.
My professor in grad school was always encouraging me to stop practicing and look at the dang score. She helped me realize that one of my superpowers is learning music quickly and efficiently. And I never accomplish that goal without studying my score.
Take some time to pay attention to small details like intervals, harmonic key areas, patterns, dynamics, musical directions, phrasing, etc. This allows our mental picture of the music to crystalize. It still is wild to me that our job as musicians is to imagine sound and then create it.
Your mental picture MATTERS.
Enjoy the Music
It’s really easy to focus on getting everything right and forget to tell the story. Yes, all of our grindstone scale work matters. We need technique in order to be expressive. But at the end of the day the story you tell, whether it’s your own or one from the collective human experience, is what REALLY matters.