6 Tips For Making the Most of Your Practice Time

Sep 2, 2014

From changes in behaviour and alterations of the very structures of the brain, to learning important life skills like goal setting and perseverance, and even building a healthy sense of self esteem, the countless benefits of a musical education for students of all ages are undeniable. But all the benefits that come from music lessons require one thing before they can take affect: practice, practice, practice. They say practice makes perfect, and in this case it can be a lot more truthful than you know. Every single social and psychological benefit that has been discussed in connection with making music comes from practice. It is the practice that builds self esteem, the repetition that produces changes in behaviour and brain structure, building to completion of that final goal that teaches perseverance. If students of music don’t practice, just like any other skill, they can lose, or never gain, any of these benefits. Of course, in today’s world of busy class schedules, long work hours, and competing commitments, it isn’t always easy to make each practice time worth while. This week we’ll take a look at some helpful tips to make the most of each practice session, regardless of your method of making music.

1. Find a quiet space.

This seems so obvious you may feel like it can go without saying, however, in our world of overwhelming distraction it needs to be discussed. A quiet space will help to alleviate the countless interruptions that bombard us every waking moment. It also has the wonderful ability to calm the mind, while helping it to focus on the task at hand. Finding a place that you can routinely come to to practice can create a kind of mental ritual that will help prepare both the mind and the body for practicing and making music amid our hectic lives.

2. Practice around and through a problem.

It’s easy, and sounds nice to start each piece at the beginning, building to a problem area, however, this approach may not be the most effective for dealing with that difficult section. Instead of starting at the beginning of a piece, try starting a few measures ahead of an area you have difficulty with, practicing into it and through to a few measures after. Then try starting from the problem on, finally from a bit before again. This method breaks the issue into smaller chunks that can be easier for the mind to work through and around. It also has the added benefit of maintaining continuity throughout your playing, especially when you go to play with a group.

3. Visualization.

Visualization is a technique most often associated with sports and athletes, but it can be an invaluable tool for the musician as well. Try putting down your instrument (figuratively if you’re a vocalist), and visualize creating the proper notes as you read through a piece of music. Not only is this a great way to reinforce your knowledge of the music, but it can be an excellent way to get a bit of practice time in when your life simply wont slow down enough for a real practice session. Have a few minutes to yourself after the kids go to bed? Or a lengthy public transit commute? Bring some sheet music along and try out some visualizations.

4. Work smarter, not longer.

Our attention spans seem to be getting shorter and shorter, and we don’t always have the willpower to work on a single problem for long periods of time. So don’t set yourself up for failure by trying to tackle a problem with a long gruelling practice session. Instead, try setting a timer for a short period, 5 or 10 minutes, certainly no longer than 20. During this time attack the area that is giving you difficulty in as many different ways as you can think of. Try playing it as slowly as you can to build muscle memory (or vocal memory, as it were), try playing it backwards, use the visualization technique discussed above, change the rhythm, break it down into smaller pieces. If it is still giving you trouble when the timer goes off, leave it for the day and try again next time. Chances are it will be easier on your next go around.

5. Set goals for each session.

Simply playing your music isn’t the same thing as practicing. It is important that you go into each practice session with some sort of goal in mind for an outcome. Practice what you don’t know or struggle with rather than what you are already familiar with or comfortable playing. If you’re not sure what to work on, or what areas need improvement, it’s never a bad idea to discuss it with your music teacher. Any teacher would be willing and happy to help you set concrete goals to work towards before your next lesson. It’s also a pretty good idea to write down any of these suggestions so you can refer to them later while practicing.

6. Reward yourself and remember to have fun!

Everybody wants to be good at something, but loving what you do is so much more important than being good at it. Never forget that even though you are, and will continue to face difficulties in your playing, making music is supposed to be fun! As you improve your enjoyment will grow with your skills. But in order for the skill and enjoyment to grow you must also reward yourself for a job well done. You don’t have to go overboard, but having a little ice cream, or watching a favourite movie will give you a moral boost, while also creating a strong subconscious connection between practicing, making music, and the good feelings you get when you do something you love and accomplish something you’ve set out to do.

These are only six of the endless “tips and tricks” you can find for improving and optimizing your music practice time. A quick Google search can and will give you countless ideas, philosophies, and opinions on how you can make the most of each practice session, but these few are fairly consistent among the various ideas. Really, the best was to make each practice count is to find your own way to work. Some people practice difficult measures standing on one foot. Some sing the part before attempting to play it. Make your practice your own, and you will find success.