The Practice Habits of Successful Musicians: The Nitty Gritty

Last week, I published part one of a two-part series on practicing. In part two, we’ll discuss what a good practice session actually looks like, and what you should be accomplishing.

  1. Make sure to warm up. Warming up is one part physical stretching and one part waking your skills up. Musicians are like athletes – we need to warm-up our muscles and hone our brain before moving on to our to-do list. Unlike athletes though, we don’t think that we physical injury when we fail to warm-up (sometimes we do!). Because of this, some students don’t do a proper job of warming up. This can be hugely damaging to your playing! If your practice goal is to get better each day (and it should be – at least a little bit), you have to start your practice session from a place of strength. The warm-up gives you that solid rock from which to venture forth into unknown waters.
  2. Mistakes are OK – but only if you learn from them. Mistakes that happen over and over again are signs that something was never well learned to begin with. Even a piece that doesn’t have one consistent mistake, but is peppered with inconsistency shows that it needs to be learned at a deeper level – which usually involves slowing the tempo down. It’s OK to forgive mistakes – but that doesn’t mean that you let them stand. If you ever find yourself saying “well that’s OK, because of…” it usually isn’t. Expect more of yourself.
  3. Play the percentages. This is the corollary to the rule from last week about practice making permanent. If you practice something for ten minutes, and finally nail it at the end of that ten minutes, congratulations! You worked really hard, and achieved a goal! Now for the bad news – you just spent the better part of ten minutes reinforcing a flawed playing. You worked really hard to get it to a positive place! Now go reinforce it, to make sure that it sticks.
  4. Be specific. If you’re going to fix a mistake, you have to make sure that you know what you’re fixing! Critiques like “it just didn’t sound good,” or “the intonation was bad” are fairly worthless. What part of it didn’t sound good? Why was the intonation bad? Was it too sharp, or too flat? Which notes? See how these critiques give you something clear to improve? General, non-specific criticisms batter down your self-esteem.
  5. Divide and conquer. OK, so you worked really hard and found out what it is that makes that one passage so tricky. The fingering is just so tough there! OK, put down the bow (or the mouthpiece), and drill that fingering. Once you’ve found the problem cut away all the fluff around it. Take that tough part out to the woodshed, and don’t bring the other stuff back into it until you’ve mastered the tough thing.
  6. There is such a thing as negative practice time – avoid it! Have you ever reached the end of the day, and just felt physically beat? How about that time you got dumped by your significant other – I bet you didn’t feel like practicing that day. Even if you had a big concert the next day, the best action might have actually been to not practice. Remember rule one – practice makes permanent. If you don’t have the focus or physical wherewithal to make your practice time productive, you might actually be actively harming your playing ability. If you find yourself playing sloppily and justifying it with “I can get that when I really try,” it’s probably in your best interests to just wait until you will try. In that same spirit…
  7. Take breaks. This one is pretty basic – as we practice, our brains and our bodies get fatigued, which makes it more difficult to be productive (and brings us closer and closer to the dreaded negative practice time). Taking breaks to grab a drink of water, or to make yourself a snack refreshes you, and makes longer practice session that much more productive. I generally recommend five to ten minutes per hour of practicing.
  8. Be persistent. Have you ever worked really hard on something one day, only to pick it up the next day and despair at the fact that it seems like your fingers didn’t learn anything? Just like athletes, musicians have muscle memory, and it takes time for that muscle memory to set. When I’m practicing something that’s on the edge of my technical reach, it typically takes three or four days for that work to really set in. Sometimes it takes longer. The hardest orchestral excerpts took me a solid three to five years before I finally felt like I could whip them off at a moment’s notice. Don’t worry though – persistence will win the day!

My wife is a pastor in the United Methodist Church, and she has a saying about ministering that I think works really well for practicing too. She says that she has to love her parishioners enough to meet them where they are – to validate their feelings and connect with them – but she also has to love them enough to not let them stay in an unhealthy place. Love yourself. Expect great things of yourself. Take care of yourself. Expect greatness. Happy practicing!


One thought on “The Practice Habits of Successful Musicians: The Nitty Gritty

  1. Pingback: The Practice Habits of Successful Musicians: What is Practice? | Dana Huyge

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