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10 Tips for Powerful Practice

We are all busy people with a wide variety of obligations vying for our time. With proper planning and strategizing you can get in, practice powerfully, and get out. The quality we bring to our practice corresponds directly to the quality of our performance. Powerful practice will perpetuate motivation and has far reaching effects including increased confidence and reduced anxiety. Many effective tools are not instinctual or intuitive and must be cultivated and learned. Achieve greater results from your time investment with these strategies:

1. Set Goals

What outcomes do you hope to achieve in 1 year? 1 month? 1 week? Today? Your goals need to be reasonable but also challenging and inspiring. Look at future goals and work backwards to the present setting interim goals. Next, how are you going to get there? Process goals are set next to correspond to your outcome goals. Ask yourself what you are going to practice and how then set up a timeline. Finally decide on rewards you are to receive when you achieve your goals. Rewards are an important part of goal setting, what gets reinforced gets repeated. Keep a practice log to document your process. Include what you practiced, what tempo range you practiced, practice strategies used, what works, what doesn’t work and notes for next time. Use this to plan each practice session.

2. Warm Up

Scales make a great warm up and serve as a perfect introduction to your practice. Start slowly and build speed gradually. Use tools like metronome, tuner and tuning drones for reference. Check in with the fundamentals - relaxed poised posture, tone production, playing in tune and even rhythm. Wait to practice your pieces until you are warmed up so that you don’t associate the feeling of playing cold with your repertoire.

3. Clarity of Purpose

Have a clear picture before starting everything - know exactly how you want it to sound and feel before starting. It’s so easy to just launch in and skip this step. Remember the idea is not to miss. Your muscles don’t know right from wrong, all they know is that they’ve done it this way and that way. You can program accurate automated response faster by reducing the number of misses.

4. Start Slow

Take time to hear the piece slower or use the metronome to gauge your tempo. Keep your goal tempo in mind and replicate bow distribution at all speeds. Work gradually being sure you are accurate and comfortable before going faster.

5. Keep Key Muscles Relaxed

Take a deep breath before starting and breathe out any excess tension in shoulders, hands and jaw. Take a moment to enjoy the support of your feet, stand tall and place your instrument balanced with minimal effort and poise. If you feel tension creeping in as you play, stop and regroup. Rethink your piece in a tempo you can play correctly and begin again.

6. Practice Daily

Our muscles need the reinforcement of daily practice to make progress. Atrophy begins within 24 hours in unused muscles. Missed practice days result in regression, not just lack of progress. Incorporate practice into your daily routine and make it a habit. Some days are bound to be busier than others so budget shorter practice sessions on busier days.

7. Spot Check

Students will instinctively start at the beginning of their piece and play through it until the end. If they make a mistake, they might correct it once and continue on spending the bulk of their time playing music they can already play. Identify these trouble spots at the earliest stages of playing the piece and isolate them. Strategize - is it a left or right hand issue? do you need to aim higher or lower? Form your answers as positive statements so you are telling yourself what TO DO. Then play the spot, drilling in every way you can think of until you can’t get it wrong. Once you’ve got it, slowly dovetail it into the music that precedes it and comes after it. Then move on to the next spot. After working on the spots, go back and review all your spots one more time. The job of retrieval requires you to access long term memory. The extra brain power this takes increases the likelihood you will remember it the next day. Then reward yourself with a play through.

8. Record Yourself

Observing yourself objectively while you are playing can be challenging but is a skill that can improve by habitually recording and listening back to our own playing. When we listen to ourselves, we are able to hear more than we are doing the playing. Listen for accuracy of rhythm, and pitch and lightly note places that need attention. Listen for tone quality and dynamics to get a better idea what is actually being conveyed. The more you are able to hear and fix between lessons, the more productive your lessons will be.

9. Take Breaks

Practicing with your best mental energy will result in more correct attempts and therefore faster progress. Sally O’Reilly used to always tell us “When your mind leaves the practice room, leave with it.” Take a few minutes to stretch, get a drink of water, listen to your recordings, or a professional recording. Get inspired and dive back in.

10. Give Yourself Credit

Acknowledge even the smallest gains and keep track of them. Tell yourself what went well and why. The cumulative effect of lots of small gains can be monumental!


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