When thinking about how to practice, two thoughts always come to mind:
- Practice doesn’t make perfect–it makes permanent. Perfect practice makes perfect.
- A good musician will practice until she gets something right. A great musician will practice until she can’t get it wrong.
That being said, what can you do to get more out of your practice time?
- Make regular time in your schedule to practice, and stick to it. You don’t have to schedule huge blocks of time for practice–in fact, musicians tend to get more out of smaller chunks (15-30 minutes, a few times a day when possible). Practice time is as important as the work you’d do for any other class–except making music is fun.
- Set measurable goals for your practice time. Having difficulty with a particular scale? Make mastering it a goal for a practice session. If you’re facing a difficult passage in a piece of music, work on it a measure or two at a time, and set a goal for how much of it you will master in a given practice session.
- Eliminate distractions. People often spend a ton of time doing homework or practicing and get so little done because they’re actually doing pseudowork. You know pseudowork–it’s when you shuffle your attention back forth between what you should be focusing on and Facebook, incoming text messages, television or the many wonders of the internet. Multi-tasking is largely a myth–nobody does multiple things at once, they simply shift their attention back and forth quickly. If you focus on one thing and eliminate distractions, you’ll get a ton more accomplished.
- Work on a variety of skills and tasks. Working on a wide variety of tasks and skills will help keep your sessions fresh and will help you become a well-rounded player. Do not neglect fundamentals like long tones, scales, fingering exercises, lip slurs and articulation exercises! Mastering fundamentals should always be your primary goal–doing so makes playing difficult passages infinitely easier.
- Accuracy before speed. If you are facing a difficult technical passage, always work on playing the pitches, rhythms, dynamics and articulations with absolute accuracy before worrying about playing them up to speed. Once you have accuracy down, then you can increase speed by using a metronome to keep time and gradually increasing it until you’re up to performance tempo. Making sure you get all of the details right before speeding up will build the right kind of muscle memory.
- Break difficult passages into chunks. Tackling a measure at a time is a lot easier than trying to tackle an extended passage. A great strategy for this is to work backwards from the end of a phrase or passage. Master the last measure, then work backwards, adding a measure at a time, until you have it down!
- Listen! Seek out recordings of the pieces you’re working on. Also seek out and listen frequently to the best performers on your instrument. As you listen more and more to high quality performances, your instincts will kick in and will subtly cause you to change your technique to emulate the kind of sound you hear.