What You’re Not Practicing (and you should be!)

uncategorized Dec 16, 2014

We are coming up to a new year and a time for new beginnings. We make resolutions, committing to creating new habits and achieving new goals.

If you’re like me, you have a stack of new music that you want to learn in the new year. I love the idea of starting something new and exploring the musical possibilities and challenges that I may find.

But are you planning ahead for the finish line? Do you expect, based on past experience, that you will finish that piece and be able to play it to your satisfaction?

If crossing the finish line hasn’t been your experience to date, you probably need to change the way you’re practicing. Ordinary repetitive practice alone will not give you the performance results you are looking for. You need to do what the athletes do, and practice for the finish.

Professional athletes in every sport have rigorous practice schedules. Their workouts, their diets, their sleep routines are all carefully modulated to help them work at peak performance level. But as every sports fan can tell you, that doesn’t mean the team will win, or even that they will play well.

And more often than any team owner would like, the outcome is decided in the final moments of the game. In those moments, it’s not just how many shots on goal they have made in practice. It’s not how many times the team has practiced that running play. A whole different skill set becomes important. Things like “clock management” and “no-huddle offense” help a team gain every advantage to try to secure a win.

When we musicians perform, we use a different skill set too, one that we rarely use in ordinary practice. And if we don’t practice that skill set, we fail to perform at our best.

Part of that skill set is found in the techniques we use to practice. Practice techniques that push us toward greater control and continuity help us develop the stamina and vision to concentrate all the way from the first note to the last. Plain repetitive practice not only does not develop those skills, but it actually deadens our reactions by removing the creativity and initiative from our playing. (Don’t mistake my meaning; you still need to practice! But there are more creative and helpful ways to get it done.)

Another esssential skill for performance is learning to focus. Focus is not a magical skill; it is a habit that you develop and practice for each piece as you learn it. There are numerous ways to help yourself concentrate on the task at hand, to stay in the moment and not distract yourself. One excellent way is to mentally talk your way through the piece as you play, creating a narrative that will help keep your mind on the task at hand.

What is most important is that you commit to actually finishing the pieces you start. While it’s certainly okay to put a piece of music aside for awhile or put it away if you decide that it isn’t something you want to work on, you need to finish the majority of the music you practice. Why? Why should you finish it, especially if you aren’t going to perform it anywhere?

  • Because there are some skills that you learn only when you finish a piece, when you have it performance-ready.
  • Because it feels better to have some music you can play than a stack of music that you never learned past the first page.
  • Because someone will ask you to play something someday.
  • Because you ought to have something to show for all of those lessons and hours of practice.
  • Because playing is way more fun than practicing.

So plan your musical new year to include as much music as you want. Just be sure to plan to finish some of it!

And to help you do that, I am offering my Practice for the Finish course on a year-end special! You can get the course, ebook and workbook bundle at a special price if you purchase before December 31. It’s the perfect way to set up your new year for success!


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