“Practice makes perfect” is an indisputable fact that we shouldn’t forget as musicians. If you want to improve on your instrument, practicing is the most important tool that you can use. Set goals for your practice time. In order to make the most of your time, you need to make a plan as to what it is that you want to accomplish. Do you want to memorize a piece? Do you need to figure out the fingerings of one of your pieces? Do you need to work on the breath stamina? If you start out your practice session with a particular goal in mind, you will be focused and motivated to attain that goal. When you set your goals, write them down and then when you are finished practicing, write down whether you accomplished your goal or not. If you didn’t, reflect on why. If you did, be sure to congratulate and reward yourself! You are your most important critic!
It can also be helpful to break up your practice time into smaller increments. Your instructor may say that you should practice three hours a day. But that doesn’t mean that you have to lock yourself in a room for three hours straight! Practicing effectively requires concentration and focus and but can become tiresome if not spread out. If you break that three hours into three one-hour sessions, you will be more focused and use your time more effectively. Remember that practicing isn’t just about playing all the way through your music. There will be times when you are preparing for a performance and you need to play your entire piece to ensure memorization and gain stamina. However, when you are first learning a piece, playing your piece from beginning to end can hinder your progress. If you are still having technical difficulties or are making mistakes, by playing through your piece without stopping to correct errors you are ingraining those mistakes into your muscle memory. It will be twice as hard to get rid of those mistakes later on. Work on small sections of your piece and then string a few small sections together to make a longer section. In order to break a habit, you need to do something the correct way a hundred times. So every time you miss a note, you should repeat that part until you understand where the error is bring made and how to correct it.
Your practicing environment is also a key factor to a successful practice. You want to be free of distractions i.e. no TV’s, cell phones or computers. Make sure it is quiet and room has enough light. Turn off your phone so you are not tempted to check your messages or answer calls. You should have a metronome, a pencil for note taking, your music and technique books, a practice log, some water and any instrument specific accessories.
You should always start your practice with warm-ups. But don’t just run through your exercises for the allotted amount of time. The purpose of warming up is not simply to get your muscles moving. It is in the warm up that you 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 breathing and if you are holding any tension in your body. Keep your mind in the game at all times.
Many musicians also find it helpful to record their practices. By recording yourself, via audio or video, it is easier to catch some things you may have missed in the moment. Listening to yourself can help you find tone issues while watching yourself can alert you to tension and posture issues that you didn’t know you had.
You need to practice your instrument, but you must also practice your artistry! That means listening to great artists perform and analyzing what makes them so great. Practice can also involve studying the history of a particular piece. Being a musician is about much more than just learning how to play the notes. Practice everyday! It is better to practice for twenty minutes everyday than two hours on one day of the week. If you can’t put in three hours everyday, that is fine. But try to commit to working on your instrument, even if one day you only warm-up, that consistency will pay off!