In John Flanagan’s young adult series Ranger’s Apprentice, the mentor says to his apprentice, “An ordinary archer practices until he gets it right. A ranger practices until he never gets it wrong.” Same goes for musicians. Are you a player who practices or a musician who practices until near perfection? Practice is so important, and there are so many proven ways to practice.
Prepare to Practice
Before you even pull out your instrument, be healthy. Stay hydrated, fed, and sleeping properly so you can focus when it comes time to practice. Having energy will increase the quality of your practice time.
It wouldn’t be a bad thing to schedule your practice time either. Set aside specific blocks of time, and make them your number one priority so you don’t miss a day. Because, in a sense, practicing music is like showering. You can’t just do it seven times in one day once a week, right? It has to be a daily habit.
Now that you’re taking care of yourself, study the piece you are going to practice. Study? What is there to study?
Understanding the historical, and maybe even emotional, context can give you a better idea of what the composer originally intended the song to sound like. Get some background on the composer–who he or she was, what era of music he or she composed in, their ups and downs–and the piece–the title, the event this piece was composed for, the up or down in the composer’s life that led to the composition, the special effects (like trills, slides, plucks, mufflers, etc.) appropriate for music of the time. Finding connection to the composer through the study of history can give you a better feel for how you want to practice this piece.
After some historical study, listen to people who play it these days on YouTube or TikTok, or even better, in live concerts. Listen to different interpretations. Follow along with your music. Take a pencil, and map out the phrases like you’re attributing dialogue or story to the piece. More specifically, find peaks of tension that the music should be driving to before coming down to resolution, within a given phrase or piece of music, and watch and listen to the professional musicians to see and hear how they do it so you can imitate their sounds and movements and even come up with your own.
Prepare mentally to practice. Find a quiet place to practice, free from distractions for a while. Take some deep breaths if you need to. Remember why you’re here; you want to be in this room, practicing, right now. Don’t worry about other things you need to get done or places you might rather be at this particular moment. There will be time for that later. Your long term goals require daily practice, so this is where you want to be for now.
Set goals. The big picture goals are important, but the little ones are crucial for today’s practice session. What do you want to accomplish this session? Do you want to memorize the first line of your classical piece? Do you want to experiment with phrasing arpeggios in your assigned theme and variations? What about overcoming your nervousness about your upcoming performance of a famous Mozart concerto? Write it down on a piece of paper and place it on your music stand where you can see it.
Now, you are ready to begin.
And now would be a good time to pull out your instrument. As you place it and before you draw your first tone, feel out any tension in your body. My instructor told me he had a student who stored tension in his big toe when he played. He consciously relaxed his toe each time he practiced, and eventually, the relaxation became a habit and he was able to improve his performance. Let go before you practice. Notice if you start tensing up during your piece. Pause. Relax. Then continue.
Practice makes perfect. There’s no shortcut to say it, no shortcut to play it.
Do the following:
Play every day. Six days a week for two hours every day, or whatever best fits your long term goals. The more frequently you play and the longer you play, the more likely you are to build a habit, and the more likely you are to improve.
Commit to going 20 minutes without touching your phone or acknowledging any other distractions, and practice in 20-minute chunks.
Use a metronome or get one on your phone.
Before touching any of your pieces, focus on scales. Scales are the backbone of practice time.
Play the hard parts slowly 100 times.
Take a longer break every hour.
Write on the music. Your brain will take note when you physically act on remembering to change a pattern.
Nervous, Are You?
Practice standing on a chair in your bathing suit to practice facing nervousness and awkwardness and embarrassment.
Practice in front of a friend.
Practice alongside your stand partner.
Memorize your piece one bit at a time.
When learning a new piece, practice everything at once–one measure at a time–perfectly. At least, the way you want it.
Start from the end of a piece.
Start slower than you can accurately play it, and then bump up the metronome one beat at a time until you pass the tempo you need to play it at. Then backing off will feel more comfortable.
Practice the hard parts before you begin playing the piece from beginning to end.
Practice with recorded accompaniment.
Practice looking away without having fully memorized it yet.
Change It Up
Try playing with your hands separately a few times and then together to ingrain the patterns, the fingerings, the notes, the rhythms, and everything in between.
Record yourself and then play it back.
Watch your dynamics. Quiet doesn’t always mean slower, and louder doesn’t always mean faster.
Choose a fun piece to intersperse between your classical pieces.
Sightread a brand new piece.
Wear ear muffs to project a louder sound to every corner of the room.
Experiment with different motions, placements, sounds, etc.
Practice outside or in a lobby or somewhere with a big, open space so you have to play louder in order to get sound out.
If you get bored or burnt out, find ways to make it fun. Race to the end of the song. Drag it out. Play the piece in a different style than it was composed. Sing it. Map it out with solfege. Change up the rhythms.
Set a timer, and race it. Play the song as fast as you can.
Stand on one leg or walk. Challenge yourself physically.
Whatever you do, don’t
Get distracted by phone or friends
Bring food with you to practice.
Prioritize recreational activities or whatever over practice so you miss it by the end of the day.
Show up at your lesson without having practiced or warmed up.
Get frustrated. Although, if you do get frustrated, don’t resist it. Just relax into it by taking deep breaths if you need to.
Get lost in thought. Daydream. Think about anything other than practice.
Prepare to Do It All Again
Obviously, get feedback from an instructor when you can. Maybe from multiple instructors?
Practice away from your instrument.
Get feedback from Musicians Gradebook. The qualified musicians are happy to give helpful tips.
Find a personal goal. Why do you practice? What’s the point? Write it down and bring it to your practice session tomorrow.
Practice until Near Perfection
If nothing else, I hope this expanded your horizons of practice possibilities. Practice is so important and can be fun and challenging as well. And since practice makes perfect, practice until near perfection–just like John Flanagan’s fictional archers: “A [musician] practices until he never gets it wrong.” So will you.