The Art of Effective Practicing

Photo by How I See Life

When I was a university music student, my daily practice requirements were three hours per day, five or six days a week. My personal goal was fifteen hours a week, or 2-4 hours on weekdays—more than I ever worked in a part-time job up to that point in my life. And in preparation for a recital, I upped it to four hours per day to meet my performance deadline.

For me, as one who had never practiced more than an hour a day before college, this seemed like a daunting task. Up until then, I was fortunate enough that whatever basic talent I had was enough to get me by with minimal practice.

 

But the problem is, no matter how talented you may be, talent only goes so far. Practice—and effective practice—is what will take you from good to better to even (if you work really hard) the best.

 

So what’s your approach? When you sit down (or stand) to practice, what’s your plan? When your mom tells you to practice, do you simply go in a room and make noise for the appointed amount of time and resurface to say you’ve finished without accomplishing much? When you practice, do you set goals?

When I had that 3-hour minimum expectation, it was SO tempting to go to the practice room, set a timer, and simply “make noise” until I could check practicing of my to-do list and get on with my other homework. Yay. (Not!) But as I showed up to lessons making the same old fumbles and mistakes, it became clear to me that how much I practiced wasn’t as important as how I practiced.

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Here are a few tips  to make the most of your time in the practice room. I mean, if you’re going to dedicate so much time to your musicianship, you might as well make the most of it, right?

  • Have a plan. And not just a plan for the day, but a plan for each hour, day, week, and even the months leading upto a performance or recital. How often do you sit down—either as a performer or a parent motivating your child to practice—and come up with a plan to not just practice, but practice well?
  • Break it down. What works well for me is to break my practice time into thirds. Try this recipe out for a delicious result:

•  1/3 C warmup and technique (scales, etudes, exercises)
•  1/3 C orchestral works (audition exerpts, current concert repertoire)
•  1/3 C solo repertoire (for recitals, juries, lessons, etc.)

Photo by tvol
  • Don’t practice what’s easy, practice what’s hard. Step out of your comfort zone! Don’t just play your favorite piece or what you’re good at over and over to fill the time. Especially when preparing for a recital, you have to make sure you’re not spending too much time on your favorite pieces, but that each piece is prepared to the same golden (or platinum!) standard.
  • Don’t always start pieces from the beginning. I’ve seen this over and over with my students: the first line on the page sounds great, and sometimes the last four bars, but everything in between? What a mess! I can tell when students only start practice a piece from the beginning when they pull it out to work on. They perfect that impressive introduction, but never take the time to work through all the tricky material that follows—especially if they only spend a few minutes on the piece before moving on. Don’t be afraid to even photocopy a piece of music and CUT IT UP into chunks to practice individual phrases with equal attention.
  • Zone in on tricky groups (or even pairs) of notes, not just on tricky phrases. Do you always fudge that big shift up two octaves? Well, don’t just practice what’s around it, take five minutes and practice JUST THAT SHIFT. You’ll be surprised what five minutes of repeating just two notes will do. It’s much more effective than playing twenty notes for twenty minutes, I promise you that.
  • Don’t skip scales and technique. Until you can play every single note of the scale with each note perfectly in pitch not wavering a cent with perfect bow technique and absolutely perfect articulation (you see where I’m going?), you haven’t practiced your scales enough. There’s no such thing as perfect technique, so take the time to hone in on it before moving on to the “fun” stuff. If you have weak technique, it will show in everything else you play.
  • Use your time wisely. I remember practicing six hours straight one day just to say that I got my hours in that week, but it wasn’t necessarily productive. If you go back to step one and practice with a plan, be sure to stick to that plan. It’s depressing to leave the practice room at the end of the day feeling like you haven’t accomplished anything. The remedy? Accomplish something by practicing smart.

Practice makes perfect. Ever heard of the 10,000 hour rule? Check it out. Basically, in order to find success, you’ve got to put in your time. And making the most of that time will take you even farther. Developing the talent to efficiently practice requires just as much skill and effort as it takes to become a great performer. No brainer, right? If you’re good at practicing, you’ll be good at performing.

At Kennedy Violins, we not only want to provide you with the quality instrument of your musical dreams, we want to see you succeed.

So what works for you? We want to know! And in the mean time, happy practicing!

2 thoughts on “The Art of Effective Practicing”

  1. Oh Liz-I love you! I needed a little something to boost myself and my students this fall. Thanks for the sound practicing tips. I am going to share these with my students and Caden. Most of my students are young enough that they can not even fathom practicing for a whole hour much less 2-4 hours a day. And as for Caden, it is soo much better if the advice comes from someone with talent he respects and not from mom. Thanks.
    Laurel

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