In my experience as a student, I often didn’t know what or how to practice. It all made sense in the lesson but when I got home I just felt defeated. I know I was not the only one to feel this way and it was the reason I ‘stop started’ in music. Therefore, as a teacher I implement a Practice Diary to help students learn how to practice and a part of the lesson is always dedicated to discussing what is going on in the practice room.
WHEN TO PRACTICE
We are unique Beings and therefore need to discover our unique way of practicing. For example, I find I like to do my technical exercises early in the morning and my creative work later in the day but this does not always fit in with my work schedule or even the way I feel sometimes, so I need to be able to adapt my practice to ever-shifting circumstances. The Practice Diary, which will be detailed later on this site, will help you to explore what works best for you. Discuss with your teacher the challenges of making practice a part of your life so they can give you some good ideas on how to tackle them. The best time for you to play your instrument is when you can relax, find some privacy and when you don’t feel too tired.
Many school children have after school activities making it difficult to find a time to practice. Consider the times after school, either just after a snack on returning home or just before dinner or just after dinner. For parents, practice times to consider are just before the end of the school day or early in the morning or after children are in bed. I prefer the latter, even though I am tired, I approach my practice time with the knowledge that it will be relaxing and rejuvenating.
For many reasons, it may take a while to find the time and space in your life to practice. Try starting with very short sessions when you first begin learning your instrument, say, five to fifteen minutes at a time. As you progress, you can lengthen these sessions, or do several short sessions throughout the day. Consistency is the key.
A very common problem is the thought that “if I can’t practice for at least half an hour or an hour it isn’t worth me sitting down to it”. Instead of giving into this thought, grab five or ten minutes throughout your day and you will feel content that you have connected with your music and be surprised by how much you can actually progress with these short times.
WHERE TO PRACTICE
Making your practice space supportive to your work can improve its quality. Compare your working space to a best friend that is welcoming and there for you at all times. Try to make it a place where everything you need is easy to access without having to set up or search for resources and equipment. You don’t need a whole room for this. It can just be a corner of one room dedicated to the task of learning your instrument.
Ideally your practice space should have:
- Privacy (and most likely quiet, though you may choose to have music or some other background noise)
- Your instrument (and other equipment such as music stand, if needed, CD player, and metronome)
- A clock or timer
- Pens (to write in your Practice Diary)
- Resources (e.g. printed music, reference books, tapes, videos, CDs etc.)
- Practice Diary
- Heating or cooling to a comfortable temperature
- Ornaments which calm, inspire and please your aesthetic taste (e.g. posters, incense, flowers, books, sayings etc)
- Drinking water
To be present with your activities you need to be able to concentrate so that you can fully absorb the learning taking place. If other people or animals are in your space they may cause distraction. Ideally, peace and quiet should be available to you – both inwardly and outwardly, so if you do find that you have something pressing to do and you can’t quite concentrate because you keep thinking about it (e.g. eating, washing, paying a bill etc) do what you need to do and come back to your session later, that way the quality and enjoyment of your playing will be better. If there is too much disturbance in your practice environment, try to find ways of escaping it e.g. can you use earplugs or headphones or, try coming back to your work later.
Obviously, it is very important to have the instrument and other equipment you need, however, the reality is that when you are beginning to learn, you may not be sure you will want to continue or you may not have the money to invest in buying whatever is needed. There are often ways to overcome this and maybe your teacher can help by lending you some equipment or putting you in touch with government schemes or other students who are selling their equipment. I have known drummers who have begun to learn co-ordination exercises with phone books and sticks, or pianists who have been able to play the keyboard at their local church or a friend’s house. Sometimes it can be beneficial to start without the basics because you will find ways to be creative and inventive.
A clock or timer
It is important to know how long you spend on each exercise and make sure you do not spend too much time on any one aspect of your music while sacrificing time spent on another.
Often ten to fifteen minutes (and sometimes less) is enough time spent on any one task because you will only improve in this amount of time. If you spend more time, say on trying to get the fingering right for scales, you may start to actually get worse at the activity after five minutes. This is an observation I have made from my own practice and that of my students, i.e. that there is an optimum learning time. For example, you may improve on an exercise but if you continue for too long, you may get worse. I call this a ‘saturation point’ because, like a sponge, we can only absorb so much in any one sitting. You will know when you have reached a saturation point because you will start to ‘lose’ what you were able to do a couple of minutes ago and begin to feel frustrated or even tired. When this happens it is vital you move on to another task. When you come back to the activity in your next session, you will find an improvement and you can work on it again.
These will be needed to fill in your Practice Diary and note any questions or reflections/conclusions which arise when you are learning alone. Note things down as you experience them because often, if you leave it until after your session, you will forget important realisations or what you wanted to ask your teacher. Keeping track of what you have done in each practice session ensures you will not forget to do the work you have set out to do between your lessons. You may also want to note down ideas that come to you during your session, even if they are not related to music. I often find I remember I have to do certain chores when I am practicing. Just note them down in your Diary and you won’t have to worry about remembering to do them.
It is always good to have your resources organised and readily available to you. If you receive handouts during the week from your teacher, keep them in good condition by using folders and make sure you know how to find them quickly. The information you receive on how to practice each task must be implemented as precisely as possible because if you practice something incorrectly, it will take you double the time to break the habit and relearn to do it the right way – so refer to your notes. If you don’t understand your resources, you can leave that work for the week and clarify it with your teacher at a later time.
Your Practice Diary helps you to keep track of what you are doing and note down important information to bring to your teacher next lesson so they can better guide your learning. Keep the Diary in your practice space and use it to your best ability.
A comfortable temperature
If you are uncomfortable, too cold or too hot, it is going to be a lot harder for you to concentrate and achieve the best mental state required for progress. So, if possible, regulate the temperature of your environment to suit you.
Ornaments which calm and inspire
Keeping in mind the practice space should be a place you want to be in, you may like to use sensory objects such as pictures, music or incense which help you to relax and inspire you. I noticed that when I moved recently, my singing students were complaining I had no pictures on the wall to look at while they were singing. They said that looking at the pictures I had before helped them be more present with their music because their mind didn’t wander.
Playing your instrument or singing can often make you thirsty. Having some water to hand saves you from breaking the flow of your session to go elsewhere for a drink. Water is also good for concentration, performance and endurance.
HOW TO PRACTICE
What does it mean to practice well? Mainly it is that you endeavor to cover all aspects of music such as technique, harmony, creativity and rhythm while ensuring your practice time is ACE.
This means setting realistic targets for yourself, for the future and present. For example, if you have just started to learn your instrument, you wouldn’t hope to play a Bach fugue straight away. This would be unrealistic because you have not yet developed the skills required for it, but you may set a target of learning how to read music on the stave and working on your scales so that later you will be able to play the fugue.
Making your practice achievable means knowing how to go about your learning. Your teacher will help you with this but if you always think about breaking down your work into small, manageable chunks you will be successful.
If your practice is too easy you will become bored and if it is too hard you may start to feel incapable. However, you need to be challenged so you are interested and motivated to keep learning. In order to find the ‘challenge’ in your work, have something in mind that you strongly desire to do. It could be to learn a piece you particularly like or want to perform. Work with your teacher and explore how you can best achieve this goal, firstly by doing exercises relating to this task, then building upon the exercises.
If you can relax and just be present with the process of learning to sing or play your instrument, you will be able to fully enjoy music. After some time of teaching a student I will ask them if they can imagine what their lives would be like without playing or singing. When they say they can’t imagine not doing their music practice, I know they are on a healthy path because music has become a life-enhancing pastime and not something where they are competing to get to the finish line.
Sometimes you may feel pursuing music is all too much. You may feel disheartened or demotivated and even want to give up. This often happens when you compare your ability to others and realise how much time and work you need to do in order to gain a certain skill. But at these times try to remember that there is no end to what you can achieve and the process just takes as long as it takes. It is better not to put a time limit on anything you are learning and just aim to get whatever you are doing to a level of ease.
You will get results from all the work you put in, especially if you know how to practice. Try to keep in mind what you love about music and focus on those good feelings, whether you are playing a scale or a sonata. Simply by being fully present and attentive to every task you carry out in music, you will reap rewards.
It is helpful if you can regularly look back and see how far you have come since you began learning. You could play for several lifetimes and still not exhaust your musical possibilities.
Subscribe to the RSS at top of page for regular updates and activities to inspire your music practice!