Do You Do Positive Practice?

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Positive PracticePositive Practice is something I work on for myself and for my students. I define it as practice that is focused, time-efficient and goal-oriented. Even my younger students are able to practice in a way that is more interesting than mere repetition and yields faster results.

This is the story behind my Positive Practice system: When I was in college, I had hours to practice. Practicing was how I was supposed to spend my time. Then in the years after school, I still had plenty of time to practice as a young professional musician.

But after I had a family and a busier teaching and performance schedule, I found myself with a  dilemma. The musical demands of my performing were greater, so I wanted more time to practice, but I had much less time available.

My options didn’t look good. I could spend less time with my family, especially my young son. Or I could perform less frequently or less challenging music. Neither choice was acceptable to me.

So instead of being negative and frustrated, I decided to be positive, and to learn to work more efficiently. (By the way, although I have a system, being more efficient is an ongoing process!)

And so I developed my Positive Practice system:

Each week I write down what I need or want to achieve that week. And I plan my work over six days of the week. (On the seventh day, I follow Salzedo’s example, and play through repertoire for fun, and to keep it fresh.)

I divide my time this way:

40% of my practice time on tools: technique, musicianship skills and expressive skills. I use my warmup routine, my scales, exercises, etudes and spot practice to develop these tools.

40% of my practice time is in depth work on current repertoire. This is “normal” practice: repetition, working on difficult passages, memorization, whatever the piece needs.

The remaining 20% of my time is spent looking at the bigger picture. I play through entire pieces, working on pacing and expression. I will sightread or review other pieces that I need to keep current. This is also a way for me to rotate my pieces and get everything covered in the course of a week. One day I will do in depth work on one piece, and just play through the others. The next day one of the other pieces gets  the in depth treatment.

What I love about this is that I always know what I need to do BEFORE I start to practice. This system allows me to use my time well and to not neglect anything important. And when I am done, I can get up from the bench and feel satisified that I have completed my task for the day.

What more can you ask from a practice session?

You can get a free copy of my “Positive Practice Weekly Planner” just by signing up to receive my blog via email. Just fill in the form in the sidebar.

The planner is a simple spreadsheet that you can print, fill in and put on your stand to help make your practice a positive experience. Instructions for using the spreadsheet are included! And if you are already an email subscriber, your free planner is on its way to you!

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  • Karl Leitzel

    Hi Anne, I’ve noticed something about practice with the various instruments I play (not to your level, of course) and other learned skills, and I wonder whether you’ve experienced this. While I like to practice and work on skills every single day when I’m into something new (the last two years it’s been mostly the sax), I find that when I’m forced to miss a number of days in a row, I come back to it with unexpected improvement. My theory, and it’s only theory, is that there is something about the time off that allows recent gains to be stored better in longer term memory (sort of a RAM versus hard drive thing) that doesn’t happen as well when the last gains are instantly overwritten by more practice the next day. Any thoughts on this?


  • Anne Sullivan

    That definitely happens, Karl. In fact I was just discussing this with a student this week.We were saying how putting something away for a while can really help you over those plateaus that happen, when you think it will never get better. Kind of like sleeping on a problem, perhaps.

    In my Kaleidoscope challenge, we used a variation on that technique. We changed up the way we approached our pieces each day, so that we avoided that “stuck in a rut” place.

    I like your image of the hard drive resetting…


  • Tracey

    Planning for success! It’s a technique I use for work – wish I had thought to apply to my music….


  • Patricia Jaeger

    Anne, your approach is just what I need to motivate a certain student who is slow in school as well as in his music practice.If he does better, soon, using your good ideas, I will let you know!
    (Swarthmore was my home town; the best!)


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