As a teacher, one of the more interesting questions I often get asked is “How do I practice?”. Sometimes this is in reference to a more specific task (such working on a particular technique or piece of music), but I often find that students are curious about this in a broader sense. My hope is that this article can address some of those questions.
Here are three things that I feel are of great importance for any kind of practicing on an instrument:
1. Time Management
It can be difficult to work practice into a busy schedule. Most of us are not fortunate enough to have massive amounts of free time in our day-to-day lives. Jobs, school, families, social lives, and other hobbies are all competing for room in our schedules. Until we crack the difficult puzzle of time-travel, we must try our best to balance the various things we all do.
At the time of this writing, I am working a 9-5 day gig, teaching approximately 20 private students every week, in the middle of working through my Master’s degree, I am writing/rehearsing with Arrhythmogen, and I am involved in a number of other musical projects that are actively gigging. Juggling this many responsibilities makes it very difficult to work in time to practice. Here are some approaches I’ve found to this:
- Write out your daily schedule and figure out how much time you have to practice and when those times are. These chunks of time can be anywhere from a few minutes to several hours long. Be strict about this! If waking up 5 minutes earlier or spending 10 fewer minutes watching cat videos on Youtube every day allows you more time to practice, then do it!
- With that information, work in as many smaller practice sessions as you can. Based on my own experience and observation of my students, I find that breaking practice up into shorter sessions throughout the day tends to be more effective. It’s much easier to figure out what to do in 15 minutes than it is to figure out what to do in 2 hours. It’s also a lot easier to stay focused in those shorter sessions.
- Once you figure out when you can practice, STICK TO IT! Consistency is of the utmost importance here. Someone who practices for 15 minutes every day is going to make much more progress than someone who practices for 2 hours once every week. Getting into a routine can be tricky at first, but the longer you do it, the easier it becomes
Now that you’ve set aside some time to practice, make sure you are using that time wisely. If you set aside a few minutes to practice, but you’re really just watching TV while you happen to have a guitar in your lap, you aren’t going to get a lot done. It’s okay to turn the TV off or close your laptop for a few minutes! It also helps to avoid noodling. 15 minutes of technique exercises or working on difficult passages can quickly become derailed by letting your mind wander or aimlessly noodling around with licks and riffs you already know. Shorter practice sessions can help prevent this.
That said there are some things (mostly mechanical in nature) that you can work on while watching television or reading. For example, you could be running scales or finger exercises to a metronome right now while reading this article! Yes, I’m talking to you! I’ll often noodle around while watching movies. Whether I’m doing finger exercises or trying to figure out bits and pieces of the score by ear, I’ve found that doing this is a great way to practice without feeling like I’m practicing.
3. Goal Setting
Setting goals is a very important part of effective practicing. We don’t practice for the sake of practicing, we do it to accomplish larger goals on the instrument. Having tangible goals can help you feel much more accomplished, which in turn boosts your self-esteem and makes playing an instrument that much more enjoyable.
It is important to have a balance of both short-term and long-term goals and it is important that those goals be as specific as possible. A long term goal can be something like being able to play a difficult piece of music, or learning how to play a certain style. These are things that aren’t going to be accomplished in a couple of hours or days and need to be broken down into several smaller goals. If, for example, I decide that I want to learn Villa-Lobos’ Etude No. 2, my daily goals might consist of things like learning a certain right hand pattern or memorizing one or two difficult measures. The goal might be to increase my tempo by 5-10 bpm or working on the dynamics of a particular section. These are all smaller goals that build up to the long-term goal of being able to play the piece very well.
Here are a few more tidbits to help in your practicing endeavors:
- Keep your instrument easily accessible to you. If sitting down to practice means spending 1o minutes getting your guitar out of its case, setting up a music stand, and rearranging furniture to have room to practice, you are going to be discouraged.
- There is a difference between practicing an instrument and playing an instrument (and both are incredibly important!). My high school band director once told me that if you sound really good when you are practicing, you probably aren’t actually practicing. That line has stuck with me ever since! I’m not saying you shouldn’t play to your strength, because you should. However, time spent practicing is time that you should spend improving weaknesses, not patting yourself on the back for the things you can already do well.
- Work on things that you enjoy! In doing so, practicing will become less of a chore and start to be something you look forward to.
- Work on things that are musical in nature. If you sit and play scales to a metronome for hours every day, you’re going to get really good at playing scales to a metronome. Make sure you’re applying everything you work on to a musical context. Work on songs or pieces that utilize the techniques you work on, practice improvising with backing tracks using scales/concepts you are learning, or write music using these things. Application is the most important part of the learning process.
- There are actually a lot of things you can work on without your instrument present. When I was I teenager, I worked a part-time job as a pizza cook. I would spent hours in the kitchen thinking about theory and running chord/scale shapes in my head. This proved to be incredibly productive and is something I still do to this day. It also made otherwise boring tasks (counting pepperonis for example) go by much faster! Visualization is an incredibly powerful tool and while it may seem too esoteric to some, I recommend giving it a shot.
In closing, I recommend watching this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=atGBKuCJ-Jc
Good luck in all of your practicing endeavors! Please contact me if you have any questions about this or anything else!