How to perfect your practice
Updated: Nov 22
Practice makes perfect - everyone knows this saying. It's true about any skill you need for work or leisure. We use this phrase all the time but probably nowhere as often as in a music studio. No matter if you're learning to sing or to play an instrument you will get tired of hearing it from your teacher constantly. Does it mean, though, that you just have to practice as many hours as possible every day? Is it the quantity or the quality of time you spend with your instrument that makes a difference?
My experience as a pianist and a piano tutor made me realize two facts. First, most students don't know how to practice well so they need teachers' guidance on this. Second, efficiency of practice is much more important than its length so instructors should spend more time explaining this to their students and teaching them efficient practice methods. I've already written a post on that topic a while ago but after last two months spent at my new job in music college I decided to come back to this subject and approach it in a more substantial, compact and simple way. I've tried to sum up all my thoughts in a few-point guide list, which I hope will be of help to anybody who's learning to play an instrument.
1. Make a plan
It's not a good habit to sit down at an instrument without a plan for your practice. To achieve the best results set 2-3 goals a day, not more. It can be reading one movement, memorizing a part of a piece or perfecting its section. Try and save the for-fun playthrough only for bad days when you're tired or distracted.
2. Wake up your mind
Our brain has a few ways of learning skills. When we play an instrument three basic kinds of memory get involved: the muscle, the space and the intellectual ones. If you practice absentmindedly your body is going to code movements of your hands but this is insufficient if you want to really learn a piece well. That's why it's essential to stay focused and:
a) actually be aware of what you're playing - this means watching the notes you're hitting, naming the harmonies, noticing rhythmic and melodic patterns etc.
b) simplify a problem if you come across one - by quickly finding its source and solving it without unnecessary repetitions (the more you repeat mistakes, the better you remember them)
c) memorize as soon as possible - this will force you to follow point A, help you to not be distracted by shifting your gaze between the score and the keyboard plus it will let you have a better grasp of an entire piece
3. Know when to push and when to let go
It's good to always practice for a result but being impatient may actually slow you down instead of making progress faster. Some challenges can be overcome straightaway but others need time. It's worth knowing when to stop and let the difficult parts set in your head. Problems often miraculously solve themselves without practicing if you don't push them. When you learn when to let go you'll stop getting fixated on challenging parts for hours with no results.
4. Don't get stuck in a rut
Routine is a tricky concept. On the one hand, it helps us organize our practice and make it consistent but on the other, it can easily turn our passion into a dreadful burden and a dull set of repetitions. To avoid that, it's good to diversify your practice as much as possible. Try different approaches and shift your focus between various elements of a piece. For example, one day you may concentrate on the left hand and work on it alone, another time you can exercise your memory and knowledge of a piece starting from middle sections or look for special kinds of sound for different parts. Try and keep yourself interested and entertained - that's the only way to achieve interesting and entertaining results!
5. Avoid splitting 'technical' and 'musical' practice
It happens a lot that students apologize to me for not playing a piece in a 'musical' way because 'they have been working only on a technical aspect so far'. The thing is that these two elements don't exist separately. Technique is only a tool you should use to make a piece sound in a certain way. If you practice difficult parts only for the sake of training your fingers to move quicker there's a huge risk that you'll learn it all wrong. Your muscles will remember habits that may turn out inappropriate once you add the 'musical' content to your practice. For example, you might decide that a part with difficult scales needs a different kind of articulation that you have been using because it sounds too heavy in the context of a whole piece. You'll have to relearn everything and hours spent on your fingers fitness will be wasted.
6. Don't practice too long
Asian teachers and musicians probably won't agree with me but I'm convinced that practicing more than 6 hours per day is unhealthy. Even this amount of time spent sitting in an uncomfortable position in a small room, straining your neck, back and hand muscles plus trying to be constantly focused can be damageable for you mind and body. That's why I strongly recommend limiting your daily practice to 3-4 hours and shifting focus from its length to efficiency. Scientists say that we are able to hold full attention only for 45 minutes so remember to take breaks. Don't forget to drink water, have food and air the room once in a while - after all, your practice is both an intellectual and a physical exercise!
7. Stay positive
It's easy to get irritated or discouraged when you're learning to play an instrument or starting to work on a difficult piece. Try and avoid this because negative emotions slow down learning processes and lower intellectual abilities and creativity. Also, keep in mind that every new skill seems difficult at the beginning but once you get through that first phase you'll feel a sense of accomplishment and a lot of satisfaction.
8. Don't be too hard on yourself
After all I've written there's only one thing to add - don't treat any of this too radically. You're human and you're entitled to have a bad day, be tired, forgetful or impatient. That's ok! If you try and remember half of these rules most of your practice time it will already be a huge success. Don't be too hard on yourself and just enjoy what you're doing!