Designing the Perfect Practice For You

Last month, we focused on Making a Practice Routine. The next step is to learn how to plan for your practice time. This post is meant to offer ideas rather than be read as a “how-to” so take as much or as little from it as you see fit.
Since most progress happens between lessons, practice time is very valuable. During this time, we take on the role of teacher for ourselves or for our children. Practicing often is necessary for success, but the way we practice is important as well. Designing a practice session best suited for you or your child can be a lot like telling a story. In this case, we will use What, When, Where, Why, and How.
When depends on a few things. We want to practice at a time that is convenient for us, but also when we are the most alert. In general, children and teenagers will find practicing later in the day or in the evening easier whereas older people will have better success earlier in the day. That being said, any time we are learning new information, we remember it best if we sleep soon after. While this might not be something to do every day, it is something to try when learning new and challenging things. Remember, it is better to do a little practicing over a lot of days than a lot of practicing over a few days.
Where will stay the same for most of us. The practice area should be a place where you can focus; away from distractions with good lighting, and at a comfortable temperature. Don’t forget to have a pencil, eraser, and anything else you may need to make your practice session more beneficial (e.g. practice journal*, highlighters).
If you are taking lessons, the weekly What is chosen by your teacher, but making daily goals is a great way to identify and prioritize areas that need more attention for each practice. These goals will depend on how much time you have to practice and what you need to do to achieve your weekly goals. Here are some ideas to help you make a daily list:
  • If you do a warm-up as part of your practice, start with that.
  • Any areas that you find challenging or unfamiliar. This can be a measure, a section, two notes, a new fingering, new scales and triads, etc.
  • If it is close to your lesson, play through the whole piece, scale, study, etc. as a performance.
  • Anything you need to memorize.
  • Theory homework.
  • Sight reading.
Why have you chosen each item that you are practicing today? Knowing this will help you decide how you will practice those areas using different strategies.
Now that you know What and Why, you can decide How you are going to practice. Here are some ideas:
  • We make memories by hearing, seeing, and doing so it is always a great idea to learn material by clapping and counting, saying things like the note names, rhythms, finger numbers, lyrics, and so on. If you play an instrument, you can practice challenging note combinations by looking at your fingers as you play (wind players can do this by holding the instrument in front of them without blowing).
  • Instead of starting at the beginning of a piece each time you play it, try starting in the middle, at the end, or in an area that needs more attention.
  • If something is challenging, try playing it slowly and then gradually speed it up. It is best to use a metronome for this if you know how. You can also use different rhythms. Remember to practice challenging areas in smaller sections, whether it is is two notes or two measures at a time. It is much easier to process information in smaller chunks.
  • When working on a particular section, practice it for a few minutes, move on to another area of your practice, and then return to it. By spending less time on an area but playing it more frequently, we stay in a state of active practice rather than passive practice.
  • A couple of practices before your lesson, perform your homework for your family and friends. This is a great way to pinpoint areas that still need more attention and to practice performing. Record yourself performing if you are able to do so. You can learn a lot about your playing this way.
Lastly, take a moment before your practice to check in mentally, emotionally, and physically. What kind of day are you having and what does that feel like in your body? If you are feeling tense, excited, or anxious, take a few long and deep breaths or do some stretching to bring a calm and focused mind to your practice. Meditation can also be a great tool for musicians.
Next month, I will introduce some fun ways to keep your practicing interesting, including some games. I hope some of these suggestions are useful to you. If you have tried any of them or have any of your own to share, let me know in the comments below.

Happy practicing!

*Note: Practice journals are an excellent tool that can be used in many different ways. You can write down your yearly, monthly, weekly, and daily goals in them. The end of your practice is a great time to note what you want to work on next time. I also encourage you to record what went well as it is important to celebrate your success. There are many more ways to use this wonderful tool and I encourage you to use it in any way you wish.




Making a Practice Routine

For many of us, September means new beginnings and new schedules. This is a great time to set goals and a practice schedule to keep motivated throughout the year.

Here are some steps to get you started:

  1. Write out your existing schedule, pick out the best times to practice each day, and write them in. Your practice can be split up throughout the day or done in one session, depending on what your schedule will allow and how much you will be practicing (next month, we will discuss the best times of day to practice). Once it is in the schedule, treat this time like you would an appointment, and only cancel when absolutely necessary. As we all know, regular practice is needed to make progress. This is also a good time to write down any upcoming events or projects that are either going to change your schedule or demand more of your time.

  2. Make goals for the year, month, and week. Your weekly goals will mostly depend on what your teacher gives you for homework and should be set soon after your lesson. Monthly goals will include things like pieces or scales you would like to learn, and yearly goals can include things like festivals, exams, or techniques you would like to master. Writing and posting these goals near your practice space is great motivation for those days that are busy or days you may not feel like practicing.

  3. Set the timer. Depending on your level, you can use the timer in different ways. For beginners, it may be more useful to set the timer for the amount of time you will be practicing for. For those with more experience, decide what you want to practice and how much time you will spend on each section (more on this next month); set the timer for each section, do your best while the timer is on, and then move on to the next section when time is up. This will allow you to work on everything you planned.

Next month, I will be talking about how to design the perfect practice session. If you have any questions or want to add your own tips or tricks, let me know in the comments.

Happy Practicing!