How to Practice

So, here you are in a practice room with your instrument. It could be a cello, a trombone, a piano, but whatever it is, there’s one thing every musician needs to do: practice, and practice well. How can you make the most of your time with your instrument and what should you be mindful of while playing in order to take care of yourself both mentally and physically? This article attempts to lay out some guidelines for practicing productively, including setting realistic short and long term goals, practicing mindfully, taking care of your body, and having fun while playing. So, dust off those Urtext editions and let’s get to work.

Set Realistic Goals

It is important to note that goals are not set in stone once you give them to yourself. You are free to change your goals as you see fit. Having said that, however, being able to set realistic goals in the first place is a highly beneficial skill that has many applications both in music and other areas of life. A realistic goal is something that you know you are able to accomplish in the time period you set for yourself. In order to set realistic goals, you must be aware of your capabilities on the instrument, how much time you will need to improve the thing you choose to focus on, and how much time you are able to commit to working towards your goal. By setting realistic goals, you lower the risk of burning out or getting frustrated and are able to make steady progress at the pace that is right and healthy for you. You must be honest with yourself. You will probably not master that Chopin Ballade in a week. One of my teachers once told me that it took him seventeen years to learn Chopin’s Etude No.2 op.10. Seventeen years. Can you believe it? (I couldn’t, in that moment) It takes time. You must be patient with yourself. In this section, we will think about what to consider when setting daily, weekly, and longer-term goals.

When you first sit down to practice, you should spend a few seconds thinking about what you’d like to accomplish that day. Some things you might ask yourself are: how long will I practice today, what pieces will I focus on, what aspects of that piece are giving me a hard time, and how can I work through them. A concrete definition of your goals for that practice session can and will do wonders for overall productivity at your instrument.

For example, the pianist might start by saying, “I have 2 hours to practice today, I want to focus on Bach and Haydn. Specifically, the Bach needs to have more depth and be phrased better and the Haydn cleaner and more precise. How can I do this? For Bach, take apart the voices, decide what to highlight, practice slowly. Listen carefully. For Haydn, practice runs slowly with dotted rhythms and accents, one hand only, then both hands. Gradually speed up.”

By doing something like this at the start of every practice session, you automatically give yourself a clear beginning, middle, and end to the session. Even just deciding to work on two pieces in two hours gives you an easy timeline to follow: 30 minutes to warm-up, 45 minutes on one piece, and 45 on the other. This rough guideline helps you to navigate through your practicing so that you are not overwhelmed with the amount of music you may need to learn.

In the time between lessons, you need to set a weekly goal. This is usually dictated by your teacher, who might say something like, read the exposition of this sonata, or memorize this piece. If no clear assignment has been given to you, think about what you did in the lesson and what your teacher focused on. What ideas did your teacher connect to the piece you are working on? What aspects of technique did he or she bring up during the lesson? Take that information and break it down for the week. If your teacher pulled out that dreaded metronome in the middle of your lesson, you might need to work on your inner pulse and practice strictly with metronome. If you talked about technique, what exercises did you do in the lesson? Take the concepts that were introduced in the lesson and work on them.

As a musician, your longer-term goals might include having certain repertoire ready for auditions, recitals, or other gigs. It is important to have a general idea of when you will have memorized the piece so that it may fine-tuned in time for the performance. This might be mainly up to your teacher if you are still a student, who might tell you directly that you need to memorize this piece by, say, April. If you are setting up your own auditions and performances, you probably don’t need to be reading this article. It all depends on you to set yourself up so that you’re comfortable wherever and whenever you are playing.

Practice Mindfully (Work smart, not hard)

Sometimes we turn on auto-pilot when practicing and don’t think about what we’re doing, but this is exactly what we shouldn’t do in the practice room. Practicing mindfully is about listening carefully to the sound you are producing and being honest with yourself (Yes, even when playing scales). Here is where we can talk for hours about phrasing, articulation, intonation, dynamics, and the myriad of other things your teacher has been telling you about for the last 3 weeks. The most important thing, however, is listening well.

You may ask yourself simply, in the beginning, did you like that last repetition? Yes or no. Why or why not? How can you improve what you already have? How can you fix the problem spots? You must train yourself to hear honestly and not bend the truth. If your intonation was poor on the last repetition, what can you do the next time to improve it? Maybe you will play the section slowly, listening only for intonation and adjusting as necessary. Maybe your fingering is awkward, so you might want to try a new one. For every problem there are many possible solutions. If one passage is still not to your liking after 75 or even 100 repetitions (but who’s counting?) and you’ve tried everything you can think of, consider moving onto the next section or another piece. Sometimes you need to step away from your work so your unconscious mind has time to process what you’ve been doing. While doing all this, never stop listening to yourself critically. It’s the only way you can make the music a little better every time.

You must remind yourself to work smart, not hard. If a piece is technically very demanding, let’s take an etude, for example, there is always a pattern of some sort to break down. Working smart is about finding the most efficient way to get from point A to point B. If the piece is filled with octaves and your hands are small, you need to find safe ways to work around them. If you are unable to coordinate both hands together, identify which hand is causing the problem and practice it slowly. If you can identify the problem, but do not know how to resolve it, ask your teacher. As musicians, we must be honest with ourselves and one another. You may need to admit, sometimes, that you do not have the skills, the knowledge, or the understanding to play the way you want to play, but knowing this and asking for help will bring you that much closer to your ideal sound.

Take care of your body and mind

While practicing, it is very easy to get obsessed with small details and end up playing the same two measures for hours, but you must remember to take care of yourself. Drink water and be mindful of your body in relation to your instrument. How is your playing posture? Do you feel any pain in your wrists, shoulders, or anywhere else? Where do you feel sore and is that normal? If you are feeling intense pain in any area of your body while playing, don’t push yourself any more that day. Talk to your teacher if you are experiencing aches or pains anywhere while playing. They know a thing or two about healthy playing. Trust me.

In addition to checking how you are feeling physically, it is important to take note of your mental state while playing. At first, you may have no trouble focusing and maintaining a clear mind, but after a while, you may find your head a little cloudy and your fingers clumsier than usual. Take short breaks every now and then to stretch your legs and arms, maybe get some fresh air or a snack. Practicing is hard work. Take note, also, of what you are thinking about while practicing. You may find that your thoughts wander too much during the session to do anything productive, or maybe you are losing hope that you will ever learn this sonata in time and are beyond frustrated with yourself. If you reach a breaking point or a brick wall, you may need to step away from your instrument for the day and do something else. By monitoring both your physical and mental states while practicing, you will work at your maximum potential while taking care of all aspects of your health. Teachers stress the physical aspects of this work often, but it is important to remember to take care of your mental health as well.

Have fun

When I was a student, I used to tell my friends to “have fun” before they went on stage instead of “good luck" or “break a leg”. Why? We all need a reminder that one wrong note is not the end of the world. When you practice, you needn’t destroy yourself over that trill between your little fingers. We must remember to have fun. Take risks while playing. Try something new. What if you didn’t follow all the bowings in that suite? What would you come up with? What would happen if you added pedal to that passage? How would it sound? Make it fun for yourself. It’s practice, after all. You are free to experiment with the music.

Conclusion

Hopefully, after reading this, you have an idea of some things you might want to try to make your next practice session more productive. Some things to consider are setting realistic goals, practicing mindfully, taking care of your body and mind, and, of course, having fun. Alternatively, you may be patting yourself on your back because you already do these things (Well done! Keep it up!). While each individual instrument may have many distinct aspects to consider, I believe that these principles can be applied to practicing any instrument at every level. Above all, it is my intention to promote a mindful and healthy approach to playing and practicing. In this way, we as a community of musicians and listeners can continue to create and to experience beautiful music as long as we are able. So, what are you doing still reading this? Get practicing!

*This article is by no means a comprehensive guide on practicing. It is only a collection of ideas from my own experience. Your teachers and colleagues are sure to have much insight on this topic, so please ask them if you are curious and let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Until next time, practice well.