MANY BOOKS HAVE BEEN WRITTEN ON EFFECITVE PRACTICE TECHNIQUES
Among the most practical and easiest to use are The Pianist’s Guide to Effective Practicing and Practicing the Piano by local expert Nancy Breth and Practice-opedia by Phillip Johnson. We have reference copies of these on our bookshelf if you’re interested.
BUT SOMETIMES YOU DON’T HAVE THE NEED, OR THE INTEREST, FOR A BOOK
Effective practice is built on the successful implementation of dozens of specific techniques, it’s true…but first, it’s built on just a handful of core study skills habits. Here are a few suggestions to re-focus and re-orient how you spend your practice time. Some may seem obvious to you. But you may find that your effectiveness can be harnessed by considering some of these basics.
MAKE THE APPOINTMENT AND KEEP IT FAITHFULLY
Practicing right takes time. And it takes focus. Except for the youngest beginners, it’s impossible to imagine getting anything done in just five or ten minutes. You might be able to review something you already know, and you might, over many days, get a little better at it. But to really work to your potential, you need both enough time, and long enough blocks of time, to allow you to absorb yourself in the tasks at hand. Most of us, children and adults, need a schedule in order to find enough time.
HOW MUCH SHOULD I PRACTICE?
Goal-oriented practice is much preferred over watching the clock. If you can complete effective practice sessions without setting a timer, please do so! Just the same, it’s hard to imagine anyone above a primary level making real and consistent progress in under three hours per week. And if your goals are loftier than simply making observable progress, it’s likely that more time will be necessary.
BUDGET YOUR TIME
Consider how much time you have to spend, and what you have to spend it on. Then budget your time in a way that makes sense. If you have only 30 minutes, you might set a timer so as to warm up with 4 minutes of sight reading followed by 6 minutes of scales. Or whatever. But if you find that the time has sort of slipped through your fingers, and you’ve spent 25 minutes of your practice on run-throughs…you’ve missed an opportunity to make more methodical progress.
START WITH SOMETHING THAT WARMS UP YOUR FINGERS…OR YOUR MIND
Scales or technique work are a common way to begin a practice session. Sight reading would also be a good way to start. Starting with exercises or sight-reading will warm up your muscles for more demanding repertoire, and will transition you mentally from whatever else you may have been doing.
DON’T PUT OFF THE HARD WORK
After you complete a warm-up activity, look over (or less preferably, think over) your assignment list. Choose something hard to work on! Do it when you’re fresh, and you’ll get more progress because you’ll be better ready and better focused to do what is needed.
WORK IN SMALL SECTIONS
One measure is not too small a section.
COMPLETE MANY REPETITIONS
If your section isn’t already pretty decent, expect to complete a minimum of six repetitions of whatever it is you are doing. Make certain that your reps are correct! It’s essential that you succeed in completing at least six more correct reps than incorrect reps! If you don’t know how to, or can’t, complete a correct repetition, simplify the task. Go slower, do a smaller section, add deliberate rests or breaks into the music, or possibly do just one hand.
Most of the time, you should feel good about yourself and about your progress when you practice, because you should experience a sense of satisfaction at seeing yourself improve! If you’ve gone 10 minutes (let alone a whole practice session) and you can’t put your finger on something specific that has improved, re-think what you’re doing!
AFTER THE HARD WORK, DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT
Once you’ve spent a bit of time drilling down into the most challenging bits of your music, pick a piece or section to practice in which some, if not all, of the technical challenges have already been vanquished. Practice a larger section (or whole piece if short) with attention to musical details such as dynamics, phrasing, emotional content.
DON’T DO THE SAME THING EVERY DAY
You will find it necessary to come back to the same pieces and same sections on successive days. But not in the same way. At least not on every section. At least not every day. In order to be effective, your practice needs to engage your mind and your imagination. If you’re just plugging in the same sections, repetitions, or practice techniques every day, your practice will be boring. If you’re choosing to do new things and/or new ways, you’ll stay more engaged—and be more effective.
KNOW WHEN TO GIVE UP
You have a teacher for a reason! If you are stuck on a piece or on a place or a problem—try again. But if you try again and you’re still hopelessly unsure what to do, it’s ok to give up and ask your teacher at the next lesson. There’s always something else you can practice. If you’re giving up on everything that’s an obvious problem—but every once in a while, if you don’t know what to do, than just do something else that you know you can do effectively—and address the problem directly at your next lesson.
FINISH WITH SOMETHING ENJOYABLE
Sometimes, even the best practicers feel frustrated. If it’s getting to the end of your session and you’re not feeling good about your accomplishments, choose to finish with an easier piece from your assignment list or something “just for fun.”
SHORT TERM VS. LONG TERM ENJOYMENT
In the long term, your greatest enjoyment will come from skill mastery, and from all the things that you can do with your skills that others can’t or that you once could not. If you think of your music study as primarily recreational, rather than educational, you may be setting the bar too low for yourself. You should enjoy your practice, often. Making music should be fun, often. But hard work is hard work. Strive to make success in the end your primary source of motivation.