When I was growing up, I was very interested in practicing. I worked very hard at learning and memorizing my music, and for my age I was most likely one of the best at doing so. Which is also probably why no one ever taught me how to practice – there was no evidence that such a talk was needed. I had musical intelligence, languages came fairly easy to me, it didn’t take much for me to be in a good place with my music. While I was growing up, however, the music I learned wasn’t terribly difficult. It was all tonal, the accompaniments always enhanced the vocal line, and the vocal line itself was almost always something that made a natural melodic progression.
Fast forward years later: There were many people who had perfect pitch and already spoke languages fluently – my abilities, although strong, weren’t out of the ordinary. The music I performed was much more sophisticated and included highly complex rhythms, melodies, and harmonies. The amount of performing I did was much greater, and so the amount of music I had to work on at times was much larger. And while I was still an intelligent musician, as I grew in my abilities, there were also technical challenges to overcome. Many times, practicing would feel daunting, and I could think of a LOT of other things I’d rather be doing – other things that needed to be done, too, so it was easy to justify doing them instead.
I think because I memorized quickly and because I was musically intelligent, I got away with practicing less than I should have. As I got older and the work became even more complex, I found I didn’t have a systematic approach to practicing, except that it needed to be done. There are certain things, especially technical things, that just need constant, consistent work. I put in the time, but I found that I bemoaned the practice itself, and I know I would have been drawn to it more had it been a more enjoyable part of my day.
Later in my life, I noticed a similar attitude among my students. Most of them didn’t enjoy practicing either. I also noticed that this seemed to be tied in to not knowing what to do really, and/or feeling like failure was a major part of the practice experience. Lots of failure, and maybe if one was lucky, some good sounds every now and then. With this perspective, it’s no wonder why practicing is not a popular activity – who wants to go into a room and fail over and over again? I didn’t like it for quite a while either, and I realized that what was different now was my perspective in addition to a systematic approach. But given the typical association between practicing and negative experiences and a lack of real organization concerning what was to happen during a practice session, I could empathize with a student’s lack of desire to go hang out in one of those small rooms.
So this is the advice I give to those who do not like to practice:
1. First, if you are having trouble finding time to practice, block it into your schedule like you do work or a class. I’ve always found it interesting that people don’t have a hard time “finding time” for things like work and class, and yet things like practice, exercise, and even eating (!) seem to be things for which there just isn’t any time. The difference is that the work and class schedules are set, and the others are not – unless you set them, too. And once they are set, a routine can be established. It’s too easy to do something else when the activity isn’t set. When friends invite us to go somewhere and we have work during that time, we don’t debate whether we will blow off work and go hang out with our friends. It’s not negotiable – we have to go to work, unless we want to get fired. If you take practicing as seriously, you’ll find the time exists.
2. Plan what you will work on specifically at the beginning of a practice session. Take a few minutes and decide what needs to take priority. Be very specific – which pages of a piece? Which lines or measures? What specifically about them? Do you need to work on technical aspects? Line connection? Language? Dramatic interpretation? Expressive nuance? These are all different components. Be sure to describe exactly what you wish to work on. It may be different aspects on a certain part of one piece, or one aspect in different pieces. Establish an amount of time for each activity/piece based on how much time you think you need to achieve that particular component.
3. If necessary, adopt a new perspective on what it means to practice. Making sounds should be about getting information from yourself, not about being “right” – after all, how do you know what right is if you don’t know what you don’t want and what that feels like? Practice should be about exploration, about trying things out to see what happens, and actively observing so that you can assess what happens when you feel things you like and what is going on when something happens that you don’t like. If you are actively observing, you can inform the body as to what it should attempt to recreate or what it should attempt to avoid. Without this kind of observation, you will most likely only be able to make general comments such as something being “good” or “bad” – and it’s very difficult for the body to try to recreate good or to try to not be bad. Furthermore, generalized statements like this can only tell the body that everything that just happened was one or the other, which is rarely the case. An example of this would be a sound that comes out poorly and yet a nice released, low inhalation was achieved. In this case, a reaction of “bad” tells the body that all of what just happened was no good, and confusion may occur since the body thought that was how you wanted to take the breath in. Thus hesitation ensues on the inhalation, etc…
4. Check in with yourself at the beginning of each practice session. How you feel from one hour to the next can be very different. Ask yourself how you feel on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being ready to revert to fetal position under the piano and 10 being the best you’ve ever felt in your life. If you are in a particularly low functioning state for some reason, set your practice expectations based on that number. It doesn’t make sense to expect the body to perform at the level of a 10 when you feel like a 3 (particularly since you’ve probably felt like a 10 only a handful of times in your life). Notice where the mind and the body are at for that session, and proceed accordingly. Honesty with oneself and honor for oneself are key here. Adjust the practice plan if necessary.
5. Limit your time allotments for each practice component to the amount of time for which you personally can focus. If you can’t focus well for longer than 10 minutes, make sure your practice components within a session are no longer than 10 minutes each. If you can focus well for 30 minutes, then you can plan components up to that length. This is individual to your needs. If you need 30 minutes for a certain component but your focus limit is 10 minutes, then divide your time for that component into three pieces. What you want to ensure is that you keep the process moving based on your focus abilities so that you don’t get bored or frustrated. Use whatever time amount that will allow you to practice intensely – a state of deep practice – rather than just going through the motions.
6. Give yourself a “reward” for making it through an allotted deep practice time! I would recommend timing these and doing things you can do by yourself. Involving others will almost ensure that you do not stay focused on task, and doing things without timing them may have a similar effect, where you become distracted by the reward past a small amount of time. Examples of rewards might include reading a page or two of a book you want to read, or flipping through a magazine, or checking email or social media (avoiding conversations), or stretching or having a mini dance party! Limit reward time to 90 seconds, and then move on to your next practice component. Once the next component time is complete, have another reward, and so forth. Think of this like exercise with sets of repetitions: you perform an exercise set comprised of a certain number of repetitions, and then you take a brief, timed break before beginning the next set. So be prepared: take things with you for your practice session that you could use as rewards, be sure to have access to a timer so you know when your practice and break times are up.
7. If something isn’t working, have a list of varied ways you can try the same task. For example, moving around, bending the knees, changing the thought pattern, changing the internal rhythm, etc. And if you try something several different ways and nothing is working, move on. Adjust the practice plan if necessary.
Try these ideas out and see what happens. By changing chance of failure to exploration and rewarding yourself for focus, what’s not to like about practicing? Plus I’d be willing to bet the time flies by…you may even want to practice more often.