In part 1 of this article, we discovered that our first priority to ourselves should be balance. As we are able to get away from the practice room, we can discover how interactions with others can seriously change our perspectives on the music we write and perform. Now that we are comfortable with stepping away from our instrument for periods of time, we can explore how much more effective we can make the hours that we do still practice.
Efficient Practice – Step 2
There is so much that can be discussed about efficient practice that I am sure another post will be forthcoming down the road. However, for today lets talk about 2 general groups of musicians and the practicing pitfalls that they encounter:
Practicer 1 – The Robot
You find yourself repeating difficult passagework in hopes that building muscle memory and new synapses will eventually lead to flawless performance. Or perhaps you mindlessly repeat difficult spots for so long that you lose track of time and before you know it, 1 or 2 hours have gone by! Or perhaps you are one of those people who watch the football or basketball game on your phone while the rest of your body goes through the ‘practicing motions’. Two words for you: stop, PLEASE!
If you practice at home and live with others, the first things that you will fix when you stop are your relationships! As we discovered in Part 1, those relationships are more important than we sometimes allow ourselves to recognize.
But beyond the social positivities, if you fall into this group you should seriously consider changing your practice habits so your music can also benefit. Let’s say you are concerned that this really difficult spot isn’t going to be there for you when you are in front of people, on stage, maybe a little (or very) nervous, and/or during an audition or any one of a number of different but important occasions. Well, I’ve got some hard news for you: Your constant repetition isn’t really making it any more likely for you to ‘nail it’ on stage. You are only building one part of the performance equation, the muscle memory. Because of that, you are just as likely to totally fall apart as you are to get it right. When we are in front of an audience, feeling nervous, anxious, and stressed, our brain can trigger the ‘fight or flight’ status, sending the hormone cortisol everywhere. Cortisol tells your brain that absolutely nothing is more important than your survival… literally. Ever been in front of people feeling nervous and completely blanked out on something you’ve practiced for hours, maybe even performed before? That’s cortisol functioning at it’s best. It very literally stops your brain from accessing ‘unimportant’ information. The good news is that it’s not your fault; it’s a human reflex. What is your fault is a crash and burn in front of others because you didn’t take the time to program in anything more than muscle memory.
Stay mindful during your practice. Every repetition needs a purpose. And it needs a purpose much bigger than ‘just get it right’. When you do want and need to repeat spots because they are difficult, be sure every repetition is musical, has emotional meaning, has varying tempos, has differing articulation, and more. What I’m saying is, be human and not a robot. You’ll see tremendous differences in your efficiency (and your musicality) if you stay fully engaged.
Practicer 2 – The Wanderer
You find it difficult to stop in the middle of songs and pieces, and perhaps even more difficult to start in the middle of a piece. Quite the opposite of The Robot, you spend most of your practicing time performing full versions of whatever it is that you are working on, finding it hard to see the trees within the forest. Your prescription is a bit different.
Because your tendency is to perform during your practicing time, consider ways in which you can discipline yourself to work on more details and less broad-picture. Personally, I like to imagine my practicing progress on a mental graph. The peaks on my graph are places where I feel confident and comfortable. The valleys are places that, for any number of reasons, are not good yet. Some of those reasons could be: technical execution, lack of emotion, lack of ‘proper’ emotion in context, tone color choices, phrasing, and more. As I practice, I spend more effort in the valleys and less on the hills. Over time, the valleys and hills even out and become a straight line. When that happens, I can go back and practice performing larger sections again.
Like The Robot, stay mindful during your practice. Your ‘valleys’ are never going to be as comfortable as your ‘hills’ unless you spend more time on them. At some point, running through entire sections becomes a big waste of time because the effort needed to better the rough patches is far beyond the time being allocated, while the comfortable spots may already feel more than 95% there. Stay focused and disciplined in your practice and use the emotional context that you’ve already so well developed to keep your practicing fresh.
Rounding It Out
As I mentioned, this is only the tip of a large iceberg when it comes to building more efficient practice techniques. However, if you start to incorporate a different approach, maybe like one mentioned here, you will begin to accomplish things in half the time they used to take and maybe over time you’ll get even more efficient than that. It’s always nice to get 4 hours of practicing done in just 2!
In part 3, we will finish up our discussion of time management for musicians talking about creating opportunity and other business ideas. See you there!