“Practice makes perfect.”
While I can’t necessarily say I’ve heard any “perfect” music yet, I will certainly attest to the fact that putting in the time will improve any musician’s sound. Throughout my college and post-degree years, I’ve heard people talk about how they “hit the shed” for days at a time — stopping only to deal with human necessities like food and sleep.
I was (and still am) envious of people who can isolate themselves like that and come out sounding noticeably better. However, as someone with a disturbingly short attention span, marathon practicing has never really been my style. That said, I still manage to hold my own as a professional musician and am constantly improving at a healthy rate.
So how is that possible? I’m so glad I just made you ask that question! Here are a few tricks and tips I’ve picked up in my two decades of musical experience.
1. Alternate practice with something self-indulgent.
Super nerdy confession time: if I have something I need to work on and am not feeling too motivated, I’ve been known to reward myself with video games. Thirty minutes of some tedious exercise or piece I’m playing, followed by a round of Mario Kart. The interesting thing is that after a while, a shift usually happens, and the playing starts to feel like the reward. Sometimes you just need a little motivation to jump over that hump and get back on track.
2. Sound the alarm.
While I’m not a huge proponent of measuring practice in minutes and hours as a general rule, I do love timers. Short increments of inspired time are often more productive than huge chunks of frustrated drilling. If you’re not feeling motivated, try setting a timer. Knowing there’s an end in sight can really help you focus while the clock counts down.
3. Focus on small chunks and simple victories.
Compartmentalize your goals. If you’re like me, you may even want to write them down so you can have the satisfaction of crossing them off later. When I learned Liszt’s “Liebestraum”, I practiced in one or two bar segments. In the beginning, I set a metronome at a speed so low I could play with few or no mistakes. Eventually, I turned off the metronome, combined the measures, and played at the proper tempo. Thanks to the tiny chunks method, I didn’t have to go back and correct any bad habits. Also, memorization was a breeze.
Hopefully your things-to-practice list is looking a little less intimidating now. Let us know what you’re working on and what works for you in the comments below!