Do you ever feel like no matter how hard you practice, improvement is slow and painstaking?
If so, you might not be asking yourself focused questions to help guide your practice routine. Practicing is about committing to consistent and regular sessions, but it’s also making sure you have clear goals in mind. If you’re not sure what kind of questions to ask yourself to formulate these goals, here are some that I use for a more focused and productive practice session:
- What are my goals for this practice session? Choose 2-3 small, manageable goals you can achieve in a single session. Great examples include working on a specific passage or focusing on improving articulation. Not-so-great goals include learning an entire concerto or mastering circular breathing (both goals should be split up into several smaller goals).
- What should I practice to help achieve these goals? If you want to improve technique, you probably shouldn’t spend the majority of your time practicing slow, lyrical studies.
- How should I structure my practice session? This is especially important if you have a limited block of time to practice. Think through everything you want to practice, then organize your session so you have time to go through every piece.
- Am I happy with that repetition? Chances are, you will never be 100% happy with how you play anything (musicians are picky – that’s why we always have to practice!). However, you should be able to decide whether you’re happy enough to move on to the next item on your list, or if you need to continue working to improve this passage.
- What went wrong? If you make a mistake, try to identify the problem. Be very specific – “That was terrible” is not helpful. Instead, examine where the mistake occurred and what caused it. Example: “My fingers were too far away from the keys in measure five, so the technique was sloppy.” Effective practicers must be very good at troubleshooting and musical cause and effect – what fundamental issue is causing any mistakes and how can they be fixed?
- What needs improvement/How can I make this even better next time? If there is nothing glaringly wrong with a passage but you’re still not satisfied, decide what you would like to improve. (Refer to the photo at the top of this post for suggestions.)
- Can I play this multiple times correctly? One of the biggest practice mistakes I see in my students is the “one and done” approach. If they can play something once adequately, they move on to the next section. Repetition is the key to productive practicing (the French word for rehearsal is even répétition!). Make sure you can play everything several times in a row with minimal mistakes before moving on to the next item.
- What went well/poorly during my practice session? Give yourself a big pat on the back for all your hard work! Then, write down in your practice journal what went well and what still needs improvement tomorrow. These will help shape your future practice goals.
- How can I optimize my next practice session? Maybe you kept checking your phone, getting disrupted by friends, feeling the effects of caffeine deprivation, or were just plain distracted. Try to minimize distractions so you can be more focused next time.
- How can I continue to improve until my next practice session? The equally exciting and overwhelming part of being a musician is that it’s not a nine-to-five job. There are always scores to be studied, reeds to be adjusted, and the paralyzing fear that everybody else is practicing when you’re not (or maybe that’s just me?). If you’d still like to work outside the practice room, you can check out my suggestions for practicing without opening the case.
I hope these questions help guide your next practice session. As always, happy practicing!