Here are a few tips for making the most of your practice time (in no particular order):
- Your progress is and always will be directly proportional to the amount of time you spend practicing (assuming you’re practicing efficiently).
- When you climb a mountain, it’s not uncommon to hire a guide. The guide can show you the most effective way to climb the mountain because he/she has been there and done it many times. However, you still have to climb the mountain – the guide isn’t going to carry you. Your music teacher is a guide who has traveled the path you’re on, but you still have to climb the mountain.
- If you feel tension in your hands, arms, or anywhere else, stop and stretch. Tension is the enemy of good technique.
- If you feel pain, stop and see a doctor. Repetitive stress injuries like tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome can permanently stop you from playing that instrument. This is how guitarists end up playing harmonica. Don’t become a harmonica player!
- Spread your practice time out over the week. Thirty minutes each day is going to have a much better impact on your skill set than taking the week off and practice 3 ½ hours on Saturday.
- Plan your practice session. Here is a good outline:
- Warm up
- Scales and arpeggios
- Technical exercises
- Literature, Improvisation, etc.
- Play just for the fun of it.
- Practice with a metronome. You want to be able to be flexible with the tempo? Good – everyone should be able to play rubato. But first you have to know what a steady tempo is. Otherwise you’re just being vague about where the beat is. Once you have a piece of music so under control that you can stay perfectly with the metronome, then turn off the metronome and play around with the tempo all you want.
- Practice perfectly. When learning a complicated technical passage, set that metronome to a tempo where you can play the music perfectly and go through it a few times. Then gradually speed up the metronome and continue to play the passage until you start to have problems. Slow down the metronome a notch and run through the passage a few more times. As the days go by, you should see both the starting point on the metronome and the speed where you start to have problems gradually move up.
- You might try running through technical passages shortly before you go to bed. There is a theory that your mind moves memories (especially procedural memories like finger movements) from short term memory to long term memory during REM sleep. There is still some debate about how much this helps, but it can’t hurt. And after all, grabbing your instrument and playing for a few more minutes each day isn’t exactly punishment, right?
- Focus. Noodling while you’re watching TV is not practicing. Neither is plunking around while checking your email or talking to someone. Progress comes from focusing your attention.
Have fun when you’re practicing – it makes you want to practice more. And having fun is kinda the point, isn’t it?
© 2011 Robert A. Neal. All rights reserved.