Question: I know I don’t use my practice time effectively. Do you have any suggestions on how to get more out of my practice time?
Answer: Developing more efficient practice strategies will help you to maximize your time, focus, and productivity in the practice room, and it is one of the most important skills for musicians to learn.
One of the best ways to increase efficiency and productivity during your practice sessions is to enter into each session with specific goals to accomplish within the time you have available. When you enter a practice session without manageable goals, you run the risk of aimlessly going through the motions of practicing without critically listening to and evaluating what you are doing. Mindless practice inevitably results in sloppy and insecure performances. Strive to practice with a purpose and schedule practice sessions as you would work or other obligations.
The first step is to establish long and short-term goals for your playing. What do you want to accomplish in a year, a semester, a month, a week, tomorrow, and today? To set these goals, you should first identify the weaknesses in your playing and figure out the best methods for improving them. When you set goals in advance, and organize practice sessions around meeting these goals, you then know exactly what to focus your attention on during practice time and will increase your efficiency and productivity.
One of the most effective tools for establishing and tracking your playing and practicing goals is to maintain a practice journal or notebook. It will help you track what you would like to accomplish during each practice session, keep you focused on your tasks, and help you to plan ahead and track your progress. (See an example below.) A practice journal provides a reminder of where you were when you began your session and where you would like to be by the end. It also serves as a motivating tool to remind you of your progress and accomplishments.
When organizing a practice journal, structure each practice session into three parts: tone, technique and repertoire. Whatever your available practice time, divide it into these three parts. For example, if you have ninety minutes to practice, devote thirty minutes to work on tone, thirty minutes to work on technique, and thirty minutes to work on repertoire. Schedule practice sessions with plenty of additional time for breaks, allotting at least two hours of practice time, spread throughout the day, to complete ninety minutes of dedicated practice.
One third of your available practice time will be dedicated to tone work. During this time, focus on posture, breathing, tone and expressive studies, vibrato studies, and exercises to improve intonation and articulation. (Of course, this may vary depending on your individual goals.) The time dedicated to technique will include scales, arpeggios, technical studies, etudes, and sightreading.
The repertoire portion should include solo repertoire, orchestral excerpts, chamber music, and ensemble repertoire. Divide repertoire into pieces that are in progress and those that are new, allotting the most time and attention to those pieces that need the most work or have upcoming deadlines. Maximize your time by isolating and working to master difficult passages in small sections each day, strengthening your weaknesses. Avoid mindlessly playing through entire pieces and playing only the sections you can already do well. Strive to rotate through repertoire you cover each day so that in the course of a week you have given attention to all of it.
If your practice time is limited, you may feel that focusing so much on tone and technique will not leave enough time to learn all of your repertoire. Remember that every day that you practice, you are working to improve your playing for tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year. Spending time working on fundamentals every day will eventually help you to learn all of your music faster.
Critically listening to yourself and analyzing what you are doing as you practice is the single fastest way to improve your efficiency and productivity in the practice room. An excellent tool for helping you to analyze and listen to what you are actually doing while practicing is to record yourself with a video or audio recorder. Often you do not hear what is actually coming out of the instrument as you play. Recording yourself and listening back to small sections will help you to hear and evaluate exactly what is happening and get to the root of problems very quickly.
These are all valuable tools for improving your efficiency in the practice room. However, they are only effective when combined with engaged ears and mind. Every time that you are in the practice room, strive to listen critically and objectively evaluate what you are doing as you do it. Focus your attention to identify problems and create solutions in your playing. Concentrate your efforts and maximize your time by striving to play passages correctly every time and be patient and persevere as you work to improve upon your weaknesses.