The Practice Habits of Successful Musicians: What is Practice?

We’ve all heard the adage – practice makes perfect. Most people who pick up the habit of music making dream of making it for someone – friends, family, a vast audience, or maybe even just for yourself. But we all know that that moment of great music making doesn’t just magically appear. Miracles on stage about as rare as they are anywhere else, so we know that we have to practice. But how exactly do we practice? The road to becoming a good musician goes through learning how to practice well. What follows is part one of a two-part series on good practice habits. This week, we’ll answer the question – what does good practice do, and how do you get there?

  1. Practice does not make perfect. But it does make permanent. While nerves do play a factor in shaky performances, most of the time what comes out in performance comes out in part because it’s been swimming around in your practice time somewhere. So ask yourself – what are you making permanent in today’s practice session? Is it what you want to have come out in performance?
  2. The instrument is your teacher. Master violinist Jascha Heifetz was milling about after a concert once, when an audience member complimented him, telling him that his violin sounded terrific. Heifetz reportedly held the violin up to his ear and said “funny, I don’t hear anything.” The lesson to be learned – the instrument doesn’t do anything we don’t tell it to. This is important because…
  3. There is a physical reason for every sound the instrument makes. It’s physics – sound is the result of energy/friction being expressed in an audible way. If you want to permanently eradicate a squeak or a squawk from your playing, you have to first figure out what’s causing it. From there, find out what it is that you’re doing to make the sound, because as we just learned, the instrument only transmits what it receives from us.
  4. Give purpose to your practicing – don’t watch the clock! Don’t just go in with a goal of practicing for twenty minutes, or two hours, or six. Give yourself a to-do list. Set goals. This focuses your practice time, and ensures that it will be well spent. There’s nothing wrong with setting a goal of practicing for forty-five minutes, but if that’s the only goal you set, then chances are that you’ll end up spending at least some of that time just playing out the string.
  5. VisualizeOne of the most difficult things for a practicing musician to grasp – performance is something that needs to be practiced too.  Once all the little nitty-gritty things are practiced and internalized, it’s important to turn the part of our brain that criticizes and figures off, and start envisioning ourselves doing well. Picture yourself in the environment you’ll be in when you want to do well, and imagine yourself playing well. Make sure you know what it is you want to sound like before you make a sound. When I perform, I’ll often have a particular part of the music sounding in my head before I actually start playing. A solid 80% of the mistakes in the lessons that I teach are the result of a lack of visualization. Envision the whole project, and you’ll dramatically increase your odds of success.
  6. Don’t practice the music. Quick – go play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star! I’ll wait. **twiddles thumbs** Done? It was easy, right? I’ll bet it wasn’t easy the very first time you played it. It’s easy now because the skills involved in playing the music – moving your muscles in just the right way, anticipating how the instrument would react, hearing the music before it comes out – are skills you’ve been practicing for years now! Don’t practice the music – practice the skills you need to make the music easy. This is important because…
  7. You are your own best asset. The instrument – whether it’s a piano, a violin, or your voice – is not an instrument of music making. It is an instrument of music recreation. The act of creation – of really creating music – comes from you. This is the true purpose of practice – it isn’t to learn music, it’s to invest in yourself, so when the time comes to learn the music, it will be easy – just like Twinkle Twinkle is now.

Next week, we’ll go more in depth to figure out what kinds of things happen in a good practice session.


Editor’s note: Part Two has been published.


One thought on “The Practice Habits of Successful Musicians: What is Practice?

  1. Pingback: The Practice Habits of Successful Musicians: The Nitty Gritty | Dana Huyge

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