When teaching my students how to properly practice or giving a workshop on practicing, the first thing I discuss is a concept I call “Set Up Your Practicing So You Win All The Time.”
This is achieved by planning in advance and while practicing, using realistic and unrealistic expectations to your advantage. Below are two ideas and four concepts to consider applying when you practice.
My approach to practicing is based on making Incremental Progress. Just get a little better every practice session. Frustration often occurs when we attempt to accomplish more than is possible during a practice session. When we look back on unsuccessful time spent practicing, often it becomes very clear our expectation was far too unrealistic to accomplish.
Before you start practicing, take a moment to plan your practicing by answering the questions below. Quick, simple answers will do. You can do this in your head, on paper or digitally. If you don’t have an answer just keep the question(s) in mind during your next practice session.
Before practicing do you have a plan and a positive expectation? While practicing are you enjoying the process? When you are finished, have you improved? Are you looking forward to your next practice session?
Compare your answers with the following four concepts. Hopefully, your practicing approach aligns with these concepts. If so, you may consider this a troubleshooting guide to use when practicing is not going well.
If your answers to the questions above leave you feeling a bit uncertain, you may find these concepts quite helpful to improve your practicing.
A successful practice session makes good use of the time available. If you only have 30 minutes to practice, do you know what you can cover? Are you attempting to cram 60 minutes or more of practicing into 30 minutes? Imagine how this feels at the end of this practice session – not so good! When I practice, I use a timer to track how much time each aspect of my practicing requires. This enables me to know in advance, what I can and cannot practice during each session.
Start with a realistic goal that you can easily achieve, then be unrealistic. Figure out a way to measure where you currently are and how to slightly improve. Small victories every day can lead to great improvement. Can you use a metronome to track improving a couple of beats per minute daily? Can you easily learn just a bit more of a song or piece you are learning? Once you make a little progress, be unrealistic. Attempt to go beyond what is comfortable – just make sure you view this as a test with no expectation. Be honest! If you cannot increase yet, no big deal. You are where you are and you can test again tomorrow.
Choose a small amount of material that you can easily play well. I always tell my students to simplify, anytime they experience the slightest bit of confusion. Break down the passage, piece or exercise to what is easy to play and then add to it. Instead of playing ten notes from a passage, can you easily play three? Should you use a slower tempo? Or both? Once easy, add a few more notes and/or slightly increase the tempo.
Expect mistakes during the learning process. If your practice session involves learning something new, keep in mind there are many more ways to play something wrong then right. For you to play well, your brain has to figure out how to process all the tasks required – in the correct order. A natural part of learning is experiencing the wrong ways to play something. When you make a mistake, learn from it by asking yourself “what one thing can I improve during the next repetition?” Don’t allow yourself to get emotionally involved or frustrated, this is just part of the process of learning something new. You can’t avoid mistakes, embrace them and learn from them. They will help you improve – if you allow them to.