Effective Practice Techniques

Effective Practice Techniques

Integrity and sincerity are both important values to me, so I'll share with you that I regret not practicing more when I was younger. I remember feeling it was boring and monotonous -- most of the time it felt like more of a chore than something I wanted to do.

Upon many years of reflection, I've determined that not only did I not understand what the overall process/journey was but that I didn't know how to practice. Those knowledge gaps lead to frustration which, in turn, made me not want to do the thing that caused that frustration.

To remedy that (for myself but also the students I've served for the last 2+ decades), I've sought out related information and gleaned what I'm about to share from my own experiences.

How Effective Practicing Works

I find that if I know how something works I can better operate within the context of that thing. You can only imagine my excitement the first time I saw this video. It does an amazing job of distilling how the brain works regarding repetitive motor functions, and how to properly build those functions.

The short summary is that your brain utilizes neural connections to fire muscles that perform an action. The more that you do that action the more robust those connections become which then means the easier they become to do (and this is what "muscle memory" is, it's all in your brain!).

Try picking up a pencil and writing with your non-dominant hand. Super awkward, right? That's because you don't have significant neural pathways developed to carry out those functions. All it takes is time and intentional training, and you could soon be ambidextrous!

Quick Tips for Effective Practicing

Let's start with some basic tactics that can immediately, and dramatically, increase the quality of your practice time (some of these are also shared in the previously mentioned video).

  • Minimize distractions (cell phone on silent, get away from your computer, etc.)
  • Go slow to grow; don't be afraid to take things downtempo to establish excellent mechanics/technique
  • Once you've mastered the basics, mental run-throughs can help aid development
  • Goal-Oriented Practicing

Goal-Oriented Practicing

A Process that Guarantees Your Practicing will be Effective

This, my friends, is incredibly important. Don't just get your instrument/pad out, set the met, and turn into a robot. No! This is what I was doing wrong most of my career as a performer. Instead, go into your practice session with a specific goal (or goals). That way, you're setting out to do something, to make progress, not to practice. Rarely should you ever practice just to practice.

So what does this look like?

Materials needed:

  • Pencil
  • Paper (preferably a spiral binder)
  • Instrument/pad/sticks/etc.
  • Metronome
  • Mirror (sometimes)
  • Music (exercises, show music, beats from the webs, etc.)

Steps:

  1. Write down the date, and how much time you have (typically in minutes)
  2. Write down your goal(s) (must be SMART -- I'll dive into that below)
  3. Write down your plan(s) to achieve your goal(s)
  4. Execute your plan(s)
  5. Reflect via goal achievement summaries, a session achievement summary, and a looking forward summary

SMART Goals

SMART goals are key to this process. There are variations on the meaning of the acronym but I find that Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely work well for this application.

Let's look at a couple of examples and determine if they pass the SMART test:

Goal 1: I have 10 minutes, I'm going to pick up the violin for the first time and learn to play really cool music.

Goal 2: I have 10 minutes, I'm going to memorize from letter A to 4 after letter A in my show music.

Specific

Is goal 1 specific? Kind of. It's specific about duration and instrument, but "really cool music" -- that could be anything, so goal 1 is not specific enough. Goal 2 is also good on duration, and then it talks about the first 4 bars of A in the show music. That's very specific. Goal 2 passes.

Measurable

Goal 1 talks about learning to play really cool music. How do you measure that? Do you focus on what "cool" is? Or maybe the amount of music learned? It's difficult to pin this one down, so goal 1 doesn't pass. Goal 2 is very specific and can be measured in a boolean way: after that 10-minute session you've either got those 4 bars memorized or you don't. Goal 2 passes.

Attainable

This one has some grey area to it, which I'll discuss in a moment, but first, let's check our two example goals.

What's the likelihood of someone having never played violin picking up the instrument and being able to play "cool music" in 10 minutes? Very low so goal 1 is not attainable and therefore does not pass. Alternatively, can someone memorize 4 bars of music in 10 minutes? While it depends on the density and difficulty of the music, and the skill level of the person learning it, generally speaking, this feels achievable -- goal 2 passes.

So let's talk grey area. When you first start down the road of this process, you might genuinely think it's possible to get more done in the allotted time than actually possible. This is 100% acceptable. Part of this journey is learning how to manage time and a great way to improve that skill is through trial and error.

An example of this is if I changed goal 2 to say "memorize A to C" and it turns out this is an intricate percussion feature. Learning 16 bars, give or take, of that kind of content in 10 minutes is highly unlikely. But again, when you're just starting this process and that's something you think is attainable, go for it. Be sure to reflect on timing in your summaries to help create awareness around that.

Relevant

Generally speaking, is it relevant for a life-long percussionist to pick up a violin for the first time to try and learn "cool music" (especially with the 10-minute limit)? Not so much. (Of course, you can successfully argue that music is transcendent and that people should be inspired to play multiple instruments [which I fully support] -- that's just not the context of this exercise.) How about memorizing 4 bars of show music on the instrument I was assigned to? Absolutely.

Timely

Both goals pass because the process is built around this very aspect (where you write in how many minutes you have to practice). An example of a non-timely goal would be, "Memorize 4 bars of music sometime soon."

Writing Down Your Plan(s)

This step will help you develop critical thinking skills. If you've set your goal(s) up via the SMART criteria, this shouldn't be too hard of a step.

Think about what your director(s)/instructor(s) do when the music is complex, how they break it down into small bits, or one-hand-only, double stops, slow it down, or any other tactics that help with processing music and use those in forming your plans.

A frequent question I get is, "Do I have to actually write this stuff down or can I use my phone/computer/etc.?" The answer is always, "Yes you have to write it down," for a couple of reasons.

The first is that it's scientifically proven that writing is more meaningful than typing. The process of contemplating your plan(s) (and goal[s] and summaries) and then writing it out will actually help you achieve it.

Secondly, there's something that feels right about being able to easily flip through your practice journal to see your progress and understand what you've achieved. It also gives your director(s)/instructor(s) quick access in case they want to have a look or make recommendations. In fact, one of the ways I like to collaborate with my private lesson students is having their practice journals start in the front of their binders and my lesson notes for them start in the back, and we both work towards the center. Everything is in one place!

Executing the Plan(s)

This is where you do the things you said you'd do! Stay focused and don't get distracted (another good reason for staying away from digital devices while going through this process).

Summaries

Reflection is a critical element of the successful execution of this process. Don't skimp here. Take the time to intentionally consider if you achieved all elements of your plan(s)/goal(s).

Make a note of any plan deviations or things you improvised (for example, "It really helped me to write in the sticking for this part, even though it said 'natural' at the top of the staff," or, "I tried slowing it down by 20 bpm but that wasn't enough so I went down by 40 instead.")

In the future-looking summary, give yourself easily-digestible bites that you can latch onto in the next session to help accelerate the goal-setting and plan-creation process.

Don't be discouraged if you're unable to achieve all the goals you set for a particular session. Quality and consistency should be your focus; do the job right so you can build your foundation in a productive way. Incomplete goals/plans are where you'll start the next session!

The summary step will help you understand what works for you, what you can achieve in a given amount of time, and, when you execute your plans and achieve your goals, that should leave you with a strong sense of pride and confidence.

I've put together a template and example to use as you adopt this process, I hope it helps.


Just like learning new motor skills, the first few times you go through this process it will take some time to do right. In fact, I would budget 15 to 20 minutes of process time for the first week or two. Never fear, though, each time you go through it you'll get faster at it. You won't have to think as hard about your goal being SMART or if your plans are sound because they will be, and the summaries will go faster since you will have had the prior weeks' experience.

I sincerely believe that following this guide will help you grow your musical skills in a meaningful and expedient way. It will also help you develop time management skills, increase your critical thinking abilities, and should result in increased confidence with all the (objective!) progress you make.

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Thanks for reading! If you have any thoughts, questions, or anything else please reach out. I always enjoy hearing from people.