It can be challenging to find enough time to practice during the school year with classes, homework and other activities. This makes it so important to maximize the available time by practicing in an efficient and effective way.
1. Have a practice goal
Before you start practicing, be sure to have a goal. Avoid aimless and mindless practicing which can produce little to no results. Know exactly what you want to achieve in a certain amount of time. Do you need to learn the notes in specific sections? Is there a goal tempo you want to reach? Do you want to improve your rhythmic accuracy or intonation? Whatever it is, recognize what you want to conquer and write it down before beginning the practice session. This will help you gain clarity and focus on what you want to achieve and allow you to accomplish it more quickly.
2. Start early in the day
Get your warm-up done before the busyness of the day takes over. Practicing early in the morning provides a feeling of accomplishment and creates momentum for the rest of the day. If something comes up later that prevents you from practicing further, you will already have completed some of your planned work.
3. Make a schedule
Schedule practice time and commit to it as if it is a class. Write it in a calendar and practice at the same time each day. This builds in consistency and creates a strong habit. By following a daily schedule, you establish a routine that becomes easier over time. A useful technique for when you feel uninspired about practicing is to start with just ten minutes and then see how you feel. Usually once you get past the hurdle of getting started, you will enjoy playing and find it easier to keep going.
4. Put electronics away
One of the simplest ways to have a focused practice session is to eliminate external distractions. This means keeping electronics turned off and out of sight. Putting electronics in a different place prevents the temptation of answering just one text or checking social media.
5. Keep a practice log
A practice journal allows you to track progress over time as well as expose unbalanced and inconsistent practice habits. The best way to know if you are improving is to write down what you worked on during each practice session. Be specific and include essential information such as the title of the piece or etude, measure numbers, and tempo. Write down your starting tempo. When you are finished, log the tempo that you were able to maintain cleanly, accurately, and consistently. This will make it easier for you to pick up where you left off when you practice the next day.
6. Set a Timer
This is one of the best ways to stay focused on a task. Pick a specific amount of time to work on a particular section, perhaps 10 or 15 minutes. Be ready to go with instrument, music, tuner, metronome, and pencil out before setting the timer. Once the timer goes off, stop and move on to the next practice goal. This process allows you to focus on specific sections and prevents aimless practice of easy sections. It also reveals how wisely you are using your time.
7. Divide and Conquer
Mark your piece into sections and rotate them daily so that you are not always starting at the beginning. It is often beneficial to start with the most difficult section and work outward. Separate not only your music into manageable sections, but your practice time as well. Give balanced attention to tone studies, technique, etudes, repertoire, and sightreading. Remember to write down what you want to work on in each practice block.
8. Repetition and the Rule of 7
The Rule of 7 is a great way to see immediate improvement. The most important part of the process is to start playing slow and controlled while using a metronome. Play a passage seven times cleanly and accurately. If you make a mistake, then you go back to zero. If you find yourself continually making mistakes, slow the metronome down and begin again. Once you can play a short section seven times cleanly, accurately, and with good tone, move the metronome up three clicks and repeat the process. Be patient with your practice and avoid practicing sections too fast or with mistakes. Your confidence will build with each accurate and clean repetition. Trust the process and focus on one detail at a time.
9. Listening to recordings
Create a space in which you can sit down without any distractions and listen with your music and score in front of you. Have a pencil ready and make notes about what the performers are doing with each phrase. Listen to at least three different professional recordings and be observant not only to your part but to the overall ensemble. Note the similarities and differences of musical interpretation, tempos, and styles.
Courtesy of Oberlin Conservatory by Yevhen Gulenko
10. Record Yourself
This is a great tool to provide instant feedback and help identify problems quickly. It can become overwhelming and frustrating while learning a work, however, so don’t try to record the whole piece. Play just a few measures and pick one thing to listen to at a time such as rhythm, time, phrasing, breathing, dynamics, pitch, etc. If you are unhappy with what you hear, try to correct it, and record again. This process will be slow at first, but it becomes quicker as time goes on.
Try these tips to focus your practicing. They will help you get the most out of your sessions, especially when time is limited.