Practice with purpose: stop wasting your time!

This blog post was originally presented as a live lecture on March 7, 2020 at Texas Lutheran University during the ClariNETWORKS festival hosted by Paula Corley.

If you feel like you are never making any progress no matter how long you practice, here are some tips to help you practice with purpose and stop wasting your time in the practice room:

  • Organize your music space. You can’t have a productive practice session if you’re constantly having to stop and search for music, equipment, and accessories.
  • Have a plan before you open the case. Keep a practice  journal with goals, tips, inspiration, and advice to help you stay on track throughout your practice session. Know which specific movements, measure numbers, and sections you plan to practice. 
  • Start with a nice warm-up. Just like breakfast is (supposedly) the most important meal of the day, a good warm-up routine sets the tone (quite literally) for an effective practice routine. Make sure to cover your three Ts – tone, technique, and tonguing. (Read more about my warm-up routine here.) Remember that the better and more intensive your warm-up routine is, the quicker you can develop the fundamental skills necessary to learn new music faster.
  • Chunk your music so you are working on only one section at a time. Remember how you pre-planned which sections you were going to practice? Start with the first chunk (larger section) and break it down to improve a few elements at a time.
  • Have specific goals/concepts in mind (such as tone, technique, rhythm, articulation, etc). Focus on only one or two items during each repetition until you can confidently incorporate those into the music. This portion of the practice routine is a lot like learning how to juggle – start with one ball, add another and another as you gain skills and confidence. Remember, if you try to fix everything all at once, you will end up fixing nothing.
  • Use a metronome. There’s a reason everyone is telling you to use a metronome – it’s super effective at teaching precise rhythm. Rhythmic accuracy is important on its own, but rhythm and subdivision can also help you add phrasing and rubato.
  • Go slowly – don’t get too fast too soon. If you learn it slowly, you forget it slowly. Your muscles need time to figure out what they’re doing. Do several repetitions at a slow tempo, then gradually (not suddenly) increase the speed so the muscle memory sticks from one practice session to the next.
  • ||: Repetition repetition repetition :|| ‘Nuff said.
  • Use altered rhythms to further improve technique. For extra tricky passages, practice bite-sized chunks in a variety of rhythmic patterns to stretch out all corners of the beat so it will feel and sound smooth and seamless.
  • Create words and phrases to help you remember rhythms. The sillier, the better to help you remember awkward rhythms.
  • Incorporate performance practice and run-throughs to build mental resilience. Practicing performing to build physical and mental resilience. During the performance practice portion, do not stop to fix any errors as they occur. Make a quick mental note as they happen, and add that to your lists of things to work on during your next practice session.

When you close the case, you should feel like you can do at least one thing better than when you began, although there will be good practice days and bad practice days. If you had to graph your progress, aim for an overall increase in improvement. Finally, strive for consistency in your practice routine. Avoid cram-practicing because any results will not be lasting. Professional musicians have spent many years perfecting their craft, so do not be disappointed if you don’t see or hear results overnight. Develop proper practice habits now to benefit from the rewards in the future.

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