by Sammy Johnson
Musicians can’t improve their skills without practice, but sometimes we are so burnt out or we do not physically have enough hours in the day to ensure we practice everything we need to. We have 2 members in the middle of their doctoral studies, teaching, and gigging; 1 member working on a dissertation, teaching, and gigging; and 1 member playing full time with the United States Army Field Band. You can bet all four of us have felt guilty for not practicing when we know we should be! Here are 4 things we try to keep in mind when the inevitable guilt begins to boil.
Start with a productive lounge activity
A productive practice session does not always have to take place with our instrument in hand. Silent practicing, such as mentally working through a piece or visualization, can help us remove the physical aspect of practice and focus on the mental obstacles that are often the number one cause of physical mistakes. Other options for silent practice include listening to your favorite recording of the piece you are studying and following along with the score. Score study should not only include your solo part but full score study so that you understand how your part interacts with your fellow musicians.
If you are in need of inspiration, check out YouTube videos of your favorite musicians or watch a video or listen to a recording of yourself that you are particularly proud of. Often, you will find hearing a well prepared performance will inspire you to start preparing for your next performance.
If your brain is in need of a legitimate break from playing or listening to music, use your lounge time to search the internet for information about composers you know nothing about or pieces that play an important role in music history. Wikipedia can provide you with an overview of a composer or piece and even provide links to recent recordings or scores.
Always have your practice area set up
When we don’t have to do any setup, we are more likely to sit down and get to work. Have your chair, stand, piano, etc. always ready to go in the area you practice in. At the end of each practice, you might even think ahead and decide what you will need to practice during your next session and place this music on the stand, ready to go. Of course, when you have gigs and lessons in between practice sessions, some setup will still be required. As a clarinetist, my music stand, my chair, and my clarinet stands are always out and ready for me to sit down, unpack, and play. I have even started duplicating some of my reed prep equipment so that I have a mobile set and a stationary set that lives in my practice area. This encourages me to work on reeds, my least favorite activity.
Have specific practice goals, creating a shorter practice session
Practice sessions seem to have a stereotype: They MUST be 3-4 hours. If we are productive and efficient in our sessions, we can make them much shorter and get the same amount of work done. Motivate yourself by promising that if you focus and stick to the tasks at hand, your session will be shorter, and actually much more productive. List out the specific piece, section, even measure numbers, that you know you have trouble with. If the passage is a technical passage, create a game. Pick a slow tempo on the metronome and play through it until you nail it. Listen for even fingers, beautiful and focused tone, and musical direction. Move the metronome up 2-4 clicks each time you nail it. Challenge yourself to be consistent with each tempo increase. This type of activity is focused and provides physical and mental stimulation as you listen between each note to its exact duration and tone quality. Even a ten minute session of this activity will leave you feeling accomplished and guilt-free!
Analyze relearning skills after a long break from practicing
Sometimes, we can’t avoid a long break (several days or weeks) away from our instrument such as vacation or family time. And sometimes we need long breaks mentally! Take advantage of a long break and analyze the way your body relearns certain basic skills and how it attempts to recall muscle memory. This analysis can help you explain to your students how to learn and form basic skills on their instrument. Think about exactly what your body is doing to relearn these skills and understand how you would translate this into words for your students. Not only will you benefit, but your students will, too!
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