Our daily practice is our path to progress. It’s how we develop mastery of our instrument and increase our understanding of music in general.
Shinichi Suzuki‘s famous quote,”Practice only on the days you eat,” illustrates so vividly the importance of making practice a daily routine.
But anything we do every day can become so routine that we slip into bad habits, or at the very least, stop thinking creatively and productively about what we are actually trying to achieve in our practice.
Here are five of the most common mistakes I see music students making in and around their practice. Are you making any of these right now? It’s worth spending a few minutes reading through the list to save yourself any amount of wasted practice time!
What to change and how to change it
1. Irregular practice. There are very good reasons that we tell our students to practice every day. A consistent and regular practice schedule is key to developing musical fluency. It increases your technical facility. It prevents having to spend time re-learning concepts and techniques that you already put a lot of time into. Daily practice provides the small, incremental steps that add up to big change and massive progress.
2. A lack of daily practice goals. When you get ready to practice, do you have specific tasks and goals in mind? Or do you just start plowing through the music you need to learn? The difference is that when you know exactly what you want to accomplish in that practice session, you can be fairly certain that you will achieve it. The more specific your goal, the easier it is to determine your progress. An example: “I’m going to play that passage until I get it right” is not as powerful a goal as “I’m going fix that passage by checking all the notes, checking all my fingering, and correcting it at a slow tempo.” Every moment of your practice should have an intent, a reason, behind it.
3. Using repetition as a substitute for attention. When we tell ourselves, “I need to play this passage 25 times (or 10 times or 100 times),” we are effectively giving ourselves permission to mentally go on vacation. We put our trust in chalking up the “right” number of repetitions, rather in our ability to find the problems and errors and correct them. We go on “auto-pilot” when instead we should be fully involved in our practice. This isn’t to say that repetition is not needed, only that it is useless when we mentally opt-out of the process.
4. Missing components. Have you ever been tempted to try one of those wacky “one food” diets, like the grapefruit diet, or the carrot diet? Probably you decided after a moment’s thought that a diet like that wasn’t balanced enough to give you proper nutrition or lasting weight loss. Practicing without working on the entire range of musical skills we need to develop not just as instrumentalists or vocalists but a musicians is a little like that. It will work for a while, but eventually we will need to fill in the “nutritional” gaps.
Some of the musical skills you need to develop include sightreading, note reading and rhythmic skills, memorization, and basic music theory concepts like keys, scales and chords. You don’t need to practice each of these every day, but remembering to make them part of your larger practice plan will ensure that you will make progress without having to play catch-up later on.
5. Not having a long-range target. It’s difficult to sustain discipline without a larger sense of purpose. What do you want to accomplish musically in the next year? In the next five years?
Once you have a target, a big picture goal, you can organize and plan your practice to get you there. You can create, possibly with a teacher’s help, a strategy that will ensure you make steady strides toward that goal. Along the way, you will be learning new skills, and new music as well as the tools to help you learn them.
And when you reach the goal, you will be ready to set your sights on the next one.
Setting a long-range target may be the biggest change you could make in your practice. It will determine the daily steps you need to take in your practice, show you what skills you need to develop, and give you a sense of purpose that will help you sustain your motivation and energy as you work.
So what is your goal? What would you like to have accomplished by this time next year?