As musicians, we all spend hours a day in a practice room. From our earliest lessons, it is drummed into us that practicing makes perfect/practice makes progress (depending on your teachers half glass full/empty life view…). We may have even been told a certain minimum number of hours a day we need to spend with what is essentially a piece of metal pipe pressed up against our lips.
It is true that we need to work hard to get anywhere as musicians, and the hours we spend practicing are vital for us to achieve our musical goals. The questions I pose are these: How can we use our practice time more efficiently? And, how do we check whether we are on the right track?
In 2008 I was lucky to spend a year studying with Raymond Mase in New York. For those of you that have not heard of him, I strongly encourage you to check out his extensive discography on iTunes. Whilst simply hearing Raymond play on a regular basis was inspiring, the most revelatory part of studying with him was seeing how methodically he approached his practice, covering off each and every aspect of his playing each day. He never settled for “good enough”, he would constantly be taking every area of his playing up a level. As an example, he would practice his articulation with a table he’d specially constructed; He listed 3 different grades of initial attack, length of note and dynamic leaving him with 27 possible variations, each of which he would practice routinely.
Whilst I’m not suggesting we all need to practice 27 different variations on articulation each day (though it is something to aspire to!) one can take away a valuable lesson from seeing this done. We need to approach our practice with routine and structure to make the most of our valuable practice time. Separating your practice into 2 or 3 separate sessions is a useful starting place, allowing you time to;
Start the day with a healthy warm up that gets your air moving and your sound to resonate
Cover the fundamental areas of your technique that may need specific attention.
Prepare the repertoire you need to perform.
I also like to write down what I intend to do with my sessions each day, and in doing so I give myself something to work towards. This changes day by day, following the repertoire I’m playing in the orchestra that week or if I’ve a solo recital coming up.
I also have 3 rules that I try to obey when I’m practicing.
Learn something slowly and you’ll forget it slowly.
-When we take our time to learn a new work slowly and methodically, we not only learn all the right notes and rhythms, we also spot all the small details that turn our work from a page of notes to a piece of music.
- Why am I practicing this exercise/etude?
- Have I been playing this exercise fora long time and is it still making me a better musician, or am I just “going through the motions”? (ps. “my teacher told me to play this” isn’t a reason, ask your teacher why you should play a particular exercise and you may actually benefit from it!)
3. Stay positive.
- It’s easy to become negative while practicing (“Why is this not better yet? I’ve been working on it for ages!”). Be objective. Give yourself small, achievable goals and if something isn’t working then try something different.
Practicing can be a joy if we choose to approach it with an open, inquisitive mind. We get out of our practice what we choose to put in, so if we can approach it with a goal in mind, then that goal is far more likely to become a reality.