The Unconservatory  

How to Practice - Part 1

A Positive Outlook

Boredom is the greatest enemy of practice. But how can this be? Isn't practice by definition a repetition filled routine? And isn't repetition by nature uninteresting? This is exactly the problem: effective practice requires a certain amount of repetition and routine. The isolation during a practice session will cause the mind to wander, then the fingers begin to stray, and finally a voice reminds us of a dozen things we would rather be doing than practicing.

So what is the secret to making daily practice exciting? Create an event that will inspire you! Plan a performance. Then focus on the pieces that you intend to play. Even planning to play your pieces for a small, informal gathering of family or friends can be a wonderful source of motivation.

Another approach involves a kind of attitude adjustment. Do not consider practice as simply "practice." Think of it as "playing." Playing is something you can look forward to and cannot get enough of. A musician prepares to "play" with a sense of exploration and wonder. Technical improvement may be one aspect of this, but the main focus is on learning to express one's deepest thoughts and emotions with the universal language of music.

How to Practice - Part 2

Changing "Practice" into "Play"

One way to put more "play" into your practice time is to focus on preparing pieces for performance. Select pieces that you would like to perform for others in either a formal or informal setting. Then, instead of spending the bulk of your time on technique building, that is, playing scales and arpeggios and other exercises and endlessly repeating technically challenging passages for gradual improvements, spend most of your practice time thinking about and working on each piece as a whole. If you are inspired by a piece of music enough to transform the difficult passages into effortless expressions through practice, you will surely increase specific technical skills and your overall musicianship.

Time spent thinking about music is just as important and valuable as time spent playing an instrument. Consider the mood that you hope to create with each piece. Think about how you will use tempo, dynamics, and phrasing to communicate this mood. Make the development of an effective interpretation of each piece with an eye towards performance the primary goal of each practice session.

Another good trick is to break your routine now and then. This can be accomplished by practicing at different times of the day, rotating your practice materials from session to session, and taking time out just to improvise and experiment on your instrument with no particular goal. Don't drop routine altogether, however. It is through regular repetition that one trains the muscles and ears and gradually develops the ability to play more complex pieces.

How to Practice - Part 3

A Recommended Practice Routine

Try to include a variety of materials in each practice session. The following plan can be quite effective.

1. Start with a warm-up such as scales, arpeggios, or a short technical exercise (5-10 minutes)

2. Play something you already know, like to play, and can play well (5-10 minutes)

3. Work on a short technical exercise (5-10 minutes)

4. Work on one or two pieces that you are preparing for performance (10-40 minutes)

5. Finally, improvise on your instrument (5-10 minutes)

Never practice too much at any given time. Mental fatigue lowers your concentration level and can lessen the effectiveness of your practice sessions. Physical fatigue can be harmful as well. If you need to put in long hours to prepare for a concert, take a ten to fifteen minute break every hour.

Ken Blacklock
Oita City, Japan
October 7, 1999

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Updated: January 25, 2001 (KB)

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