10 ideas for more focused practicing

August 25, 2014

It can be difficult to keep practice sessions focused and productive. Distractions, burnout, boredom, and bad habits get in the way of progress. Try some or all of these, see what works well for you, and make the most of your practice time.

Photo,  woodleywonderworks. (license)
Photo, woodleywonderworks. (license)
  1. Prepare yourself mentally. Before you start, take a few minutes for meditation, prayer, introspection, deep breathing, self-awareness, or whatever else helps you set aside the concerns of daily life and get in the zone.
  2. Prepare yourself physically. Stretch, hydrate, dress comfortably. Get enough sleep and exercise and eat a balanced diet. Protect yourself from repetitive-motion injuries and make sure your body can perform at its best.
  3. Embrace routine. Develop some habits around your practice schedule. A carefully-selected routine gets you into practice mode and reduces the chances of falling into procrastination. It also gives you a framework that can be fine-tuned when you have a new idea you would like to incorporate.
  4. Warm up. It doesn’t just mean bringing your instrument up to temperature. Do long tones, scales, articulation studies, or other things that get your instrument-playing muscles working together. Choose ones that demand your very best embouchure, voicing, breath support, finger technique, etc.
  5. Be goal-oriented. Know what you want to accomplish, as specifically as possible. Not “I’m going to practice my scales.” Try “I’m going to get my F-sharp major scale tempo up to sixteenth notes at 60 beats per minute with no wrong notes or hesitations.” Or even better: “I’m going to train my fingers to use that alternate D-sharp fingering in the top octave of the F-sharp major scale at 60 beats per minute with no incorrect or hestitant finger motions.” Goals shouldn’t only be technical; they can be expressive and interpretive, too. Make a list, and start checking things off.
  6. Seek variety. Don’t drive yourself crazy or die of boredom practicing one problem phrase for hours on end. Through experimentation, figure out how long you can really maintain focus and enthusiasm for a single practice task (10 minutes usually works well for me), and move to a new task when it gets less productive to work on the old one. You’ll come back to it later with fresh ears/eyes/fingers/lips.
  7. Take breaks. Take them frequently, but don’t leave them open-ended. Know exactly when you plan to get back to work, and what task you will be tackling next.
  8. Self-evaluate. You probably already have some kind of device you can use to record yourself. Listen back as though it’s somebody else playing. Make notes about what you hear. Pick the biggest-priority items and add them to your goal list.
  9. Escape distractions. You know what pulls you away from the task at hand. Hide it, silence it, power it down. How different would your practicing be if the only people or objects in sight were you, your instrument, and a music stand?
  10. Find inspiration. It’s hard to reach a performance goal if you aren’t sure what that goal sounds like. Don’t be afraid to listen to recordings or watch videos of your heroes—you will still sound like yourself, just a better-informed version of yourself. Listening to singers or players of instruments besides your can really open up your mind and ears, too.

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