How to Run an Effective Practice Session

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Practicing is a way of life for musicians. It begins the first time you pick up your instrument as a beginner and continues throughout your entire playing career. Practice takes both willpower and planning. Building the habit of practice early on will ensure steady progress for you over the long haul.

In my book, Music Practice Coach, I outline a number of actions to take before, during and after your practice sessions. In a separate article, I explain how to set effective S.M.A.R.T. goals (Specific and Measurable with Actions and Resources over Time). This article assumes you already know what you want to improve. What follows are my suggestions on the actions required to make it happen.


Ten Actions to Take Before You Practice

This list explores the things you need to do BEFORE you enter your practice space. Go through the list and make sure you have all the information and resources you need. This is the “work before the work.”

  1. Make sure your motivations are clear. Why are you practicing? What do you need to accomplish in this session? Is your head in the right place?
  2. Be aware of the things that can bore or frustrate you and plan around them. Boredom happens when we aren’t being specific or demanding enough. Frustration means we haven’t broken down the challenge into manageable chunks.
  3. Spell out your S.M.A.R.T. goals for each area of your playing and for the repertoire you are improving. Refer to the S.M.A.R.T. goals article for more information.
  4. Make sure you have all your resources on hand. Nothing kills progress more than being thrown off your game looking for some accessory or piece of music you need.
  5. Face any fears you may have. This is easier said than done and is a process. Cut yourself some slack and consider what is behind the fear.
  6. Turn your S.M.A.R.T. goals into a plan for the year, semester, month, week, day and session. In other words, schedule your practice time, in accordance with your goals.
  7. Know your learning style and plan for accordingly (for example, if you know that you burn out after twenty minutes, put breaks into your sessions).
  8. Minimize potential distractions or interruptions. Put your phone on airplane mode. Let others know not to disturb you. Focus is key to progress.
  9. Make sure to translate your S.M.A.R.T. GOALS into Specific and Measurable Actions.
  10. Have a clear end point in mind for your goals. Know how you want to sound. Clearly identify your models and inspiration.


Ten Actions to Take While You Practice

These are how you will work on your physical and musical “chops” and B.U.M.P.s (Big, Ugly Music Problems). Think of them as categories, rather than step-by-step solutions to any one problem. Recording your progress (both written notes and video or audio recordings) will help with your practice review. Any time you get stuck, look through this list and try one of the strategies. Feel free to change them, combine them or add your own. You’ll notice most of them have to do with changing some parameter of the piece to make it more manageable.

  1. Change the tempo (play the passage faster or slower).
  2. Change the rhythm (make it simpler or more complex).
  3. Change the melody (reduce the melody to a single tone, remove or add leaps, change octaves).
  4. Change the expressive markings (dynamics, rubato, tempo).
  5. Isolate the “problem with the problem.” Does it relate to counting, articulation, etc.
  6. Rehearse related skills (sing, clap, buzz, maintain a steady tempo).
  7. Take extreme risks (play it too loud, too soft, too fast, too slow, etc.).
  8. Repetition drills (strive for “10 perfect” in a row before moving on).
  9. Compare to models (listen to recordings, peers and your teachers).
  10. Get feedback (audio/video recording, lessons, mirror).

Before moving on, here’s a note about recording yourself. It is extremely important to record yourself from time to time (or ALL of the time), to see and hear things from a more objective position. Audio and video recordings will reveal strengths and weaknesses in terms of posture, tone, breathing, musical line, dynamics and numerous other aspects of how you do what you do. It’s often too distracting to try to keep track of everything while in the heat of battle. If you know you can go back and review the performance after the fact, you can devote full energy to communicating your musical ideas.

For audio recording, we recommend downloading the free version of Audacity. For video recording, any phone or camera will do, but you might want to use a good microphone or else you won’t be able to evaluate your sound.


Ten Actions After You Practice

Once the practice session is done, set aside a few minutes to look over the following list to help make each session more productive than the last. Take good notes so you know where to pick things up the next time you play.

  1. Compare the session goals with reality (what actually happened). Better to be brutally honest here, rather than settling or lowering your standards.
  2. Ask for feedback from friends, peers, teachers, etc. Consider playing recordings for them and get their feedback. It may be easier to concentrate on their comments when you aren’t playing.
  3. Evaluate whether your goals were specific enough. We often generalize when we should be specific. Do you need to refine them?
  4. Evaluate whether the measurements were appropriate. Were they too challenging or too easy? Should they be adjusted next time?
  5. Analyze the actions that were of most use. Which methods brought the biggest results. How can you incorporate those strategies more often?
  6. Consider reasons some actions were unsuccessful and modify or replace them.
  7. Evaluate whether you had appropriate resource for the task at hand. Make a plan for acquiring them as soon as possible.
  8. Evaluate whether the time frame you set was appropriate. Was it too aggressive? Not aggressive enough? What changes do you need to make next time?
  9. Have your motivations changed in such a way that your S.M.A.R.T. goals need to be modified? If so, when will you do that? Schedule it now.
  10. If things didn’t go as planned, was there a reason or is it possible you just had a bad day? This is a judgement call. Trust your gut. Sometimes, it really is just a rough day.


Final Thoughts

Progress is not an accident. Careful attention to the time before, during and after your practice sessions will get you where you going as quickly as possible. Take baby steps. Be clear in your intentions, actions and goals. The sooner you nail down these habits, the sooner you can share your music with the world!


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