Have you ever had one of those days in the practice room that feels like whatever you do, nothing seems to help you improve?
If so, you might be asking yourself the wrong questions (or using ineffective internal talk).
One of my biggest goals as a teacher is to help teach my students how to practice effectively. After all, I only get to see my students for 30-60 minutes each week, and the rest of the time they’re on their own in the practice room.
Here are some targeted questions which will help create a more effective and productive practice session:
- What am I trying to improve? This sounds super obvious, but I’m always amazed at how many musicians repeat passages endlessly without specific goals in mind. When you hear something you don’t like, ask yourself what specific thing you’re trying to fix. Tuning? Technique? Timing? Be as specific as possible for optimal results. Example: The high G in measure five was sharp, so I need to lower the pitch on that note.
- How can I improve it? Once you’ve identified the problem, it’s time to troubleshoot. Brainstorm possible solutions which can help solve your problem, and methodically test them to see which is most effective. Effective practicers have to be creative troubleshooters.
- How can I make sure this solution sticks? Once you’ve identified a solution that solves your problem, find a way to practice it so that it sticks. This might be achieved through repetition, recording your process in your practice journal, or another method.
- What are my main practice goals? Practicing can be overwhelming. There’s so much music and so little time, which is why it’s so important to prioritize what you hope to accomplish every time you practice. Think of a few goals for each practice session, like improving the rhythm in a certain passage or polishing the technique in a movement of a piece. Don’t try to fix everything all at one, because you’ll probably become overwhelmed and end up fixing nothing.
- What am I trying to say musically? There are a lot of nuts and bolts to practicing – getting the right notes, rhythms, technique, and other endless details. But our main goal is to create music that expresses something. While you’re practicing, ask yourself what you are trying to express when you perform and how you can portray this musically.
- Can I do more? (Spoiler alert: The answer to this question is usually yes.) How you sound to yourself and how you sound to listeners are two completely different worlds. It might feel like you’re doing a lot with dynamics, pacing, rubato, and other musical elements, but chances are it’s not as apparent to audiences. Make it a habit to record yourself regularly so you can listen from a different perspective.
- What would I say if I were talking to a friend or student? Raise your hand if you’ve never had a negative thought while practicing. Nobody? I didn’t think so. We’re all guilty of succumbing to negative self-talk when we practice, but try to reframe your thoughts as if you were giving feedback to a friend or student. Chances are, you wouldn’t be nearly as harsh to them, so try to adapt your internal dialogue so it’s not as judgemental.
- Am I focused on the present? One of the most difficult things musicians face while practicing is a wandering mind. Make sure to check in with yourself every few minutes to make sure you aren’t operating on autopilot and that you’re mentally engaged and focused with what you are currently practicing.
- Can I do one thing better than when I began practicing? At the end of every practice session, ask yourself this question. Even if it doesn’t seem like much, all of these tiny improvements can create considerable musical progress over time.
I hope these questions help you practice more effectively and creatively throughout your musical journey.
As always, happy practicing!