You put your instrument down and stretch your arms. Shake out your hands. Rub your neck. That feels good. You got a lot done. Another productive practice session.
How often do your practice sessions feel like that? If your answer is “not often enough,” then let me help you with these two basic steps that could make all the difference.
Too often we think of our practice as a block of time into which we try to fit all the music we are trying to learn. In fact, practice isn’t about the time we spend. And productive practice isn’t always about spending more time. It’s about two things: planning and process.
The first step in productive practice is doing the right kind of planning. Most of us regularly make plans and set goals. We plan for our big goals, our “dream” pieces, our future repertoire.
But achieving those goals takes practice.
So our practice needs to be directed toward those specific longer range goals. We must identify the stages in our progress toward those goals and then break those stages into the small steps necessary to work through each stage. Those small steps are the weekly and daily goals that direct our efforts in each practice session.
Practicing without a plan is like saying you want to go on a trip but never actually doing the most essential errands you need to get there. You choose your travel wardrobe, pack your bags and buy your guidebooks, but you never get around to choosing dates and booking your flight. Similarly, it’s great to know what piece you want to play, but if you don’t plan your practice to make that happen, your goal is really only a pipedream.
So you need to design your daily practice goals so that you achieve your weekly goals, which will in turn move you through the stages to accomplish your big goals. The more intentional and specific you are with your daily practice goals, the more you will be able to discern and measure your progress.
Once you have planned what you want to accomplish in your practice session, all that’s left is to figure out how to accomplish it. Once we stop thinking of practice as merely “putting in the time,” we see that practice is about choosing techniques, and working those techniques, that will give us the results that we want. We can’t practice using the “shampoo system” – lather, rinse, repeat – and expect to get lasting results.
Instead, we need a repertoire of techniques, a toolbox of practice tools that will help us solve our practice challenges and move us closer to our goal. Whether it’s working hands separately, or playing in rhythms, or working in sections, those kinds of practice techniques will be more effective when we apply them in service of a particular daily objective that is part of a longer term plan.
The power lies in the fact that when we use those techniques on purpose to achieve our daily goal, we stay more focused, more intentional and more attentive in our practice. And our practice becomes more productive and more efficient. And more rewarding on just about every level.
So with proper planning and processes working together, you are able to take action and make progress on your goals every time your practice.
From a larger perspective, these two steps are about keeping promises to yourself. You’ve made the commitment to your music and to your practice time. Honor that commitment by doing your best work. You’re worth it.