18 things musicians do that can help you improve your performance…at anything.
Does practice make perfect? It depends on how you practice, of course. Musicians learn quickly that homework is a requirement to play an instrument. Most sign up willingly. It can be very rewarding to watch as your technical ability on an instrument improves and usually happens most noticeably in the first few years of study. This feeling of achievement is one of the reasons music is an important part of elementary education. It’s also fun to play with the band.
As the easy studies become easier and more challenging pieces are attempted, it becomes apparent that a few minutes of practice here and there will not be enough. More time playing is needed. In this frame of mind, practice equals time. You might say something like, “I practiced for an hour yesterday,” or, “I played that song so many times, my fingers are sore.” In all this time spent playing for the sake of improving, it is important to look at what is actually occurring during that time.
There is a difference between practicing and playing. Playing is the act of performing a piece of music to the best of your current ability for enjoyment and artistic expression. It’s the best reason to study music in the first place. Practice, on the other hand, is a process intended to improve one’s ability on an instrument. In order to do this effectively, goals should come before time. Time is still very important, but a session of focused, goal-oriented study can often outweigh hours of playing and hoping.
The following practicing strategies have helped me whenever I am faced with new piece or challenging passage to play. I have used each of these techniques at one time or another while preparing my latest recording of guitar music, Platforms.
Being a musician often means wearing more than a few different hats and learning new skills, so I often find myself using these techniques elsewhere. At first, many of the items on this list appear to be music-specific, but with a little imagination, they can apply to almost any new endeavor and applied as needed.
1. DON’T GET BORED. Good practice involves identifying trouble spots and improving them through repetitive playing. The problem with doing this is that boredom can become an issue. At a certain point, the mind may start to wander: motions are being made, but the value of that rehearsal time is diminishing. Good practice involves staying focused, and a good way to do this is to set clear goals and track the progress as you perform. Set a goal for the number of times you would like to rehearse a section. Two dozen? Thirty? Fifty five? For passages of just a few notes, I have used 96 as my goal if it involves a new technique. The goal kept me focused. I would actually stop, pick up my pen, and put a check mark on the score at the end of each pass. Before doing this, be sure the technical details are worked out. You don’t want to waste time and add confusion by studying a section incorrectly for any amount of time. And always listen to your body to be sure that the repetition isn’t causing injury. If you don’t want to stop and note each time a trouble spot has been played, you could use time as your goal. Still, with this method, I find it helpful to keep a mental note of the number of times a section was played during the proposed amount of time. The key is to focus on the measured goal and nothing else. Your concern should be completing the rehearsal structure you have set up. Don’t worry about the actual goal just yet, which is to play the difficult section perfectly within the piece. This method makes practice feel more like a task than a chore.
2. ISOLATE, THEN REINCORPORATE. If a section of music is problematic, don’t allow it to remain to be the bumpy part of the song that you hope will improve through repeated performance of the entire piece. Work on that part specifically. Once that part has been worked out, begin to add some of the notes leading into and away from the isolated area as you practice. When you are looking at one section, it’s all you’re thinking of, so you need to reincorporate the surrounding notes as well before returning to the entire piece. Doing this will test how well you have prepared the section because your mind is going into it cold after thinking of other notes first. Additionally, make sure that the parts that lead in and out of the difficult passage come just as easily.
3. CREATE ELEMENTS. If you’re having trouble with just a few notes in a piece, identify the element at the heart of the issue and recreate it in another context. A guitarist, for example, might encounter a unique challenge picking a series of notes. The picking pattern can be isolated as a unique element and reinterpreted over different notes that fall on the same strings. It could be as simple as moving the notes of the fretted hand up the neck a half step for each run through. Piano players can sometimes benefit from isolating melodic elements and playing them in other keys. Once you have mastered an element, you could use the idea as a study piece. A woodwind player could take a series of intervals, for example, and transpose them throughout the instrument. Reinterpret the idea in as many ways as you care to imagine.
Intervals and rhythms don’t necessarily have to be maintained to benefit from working with elements. Sometimes, changing one pitch a half step or adding another note to the rhythm can reveal a lot about an element that proves helpful in the ultimate performance of the piece as well as in the cumulative process of understanding a particular instrument.
When putting an element in a different context, think of yourself as a composer. You are writing a new piece of music centered around the idea. You can begin to think of your element as a motive or fragment of a theme and build a song around it. This type composition is generally referred to as an etude, but it can also lead to some wonderful pieces of music.
4. SLOW DOWN. If a passage is not working out at the required tempo, don’t keep practicing at that tempo hoping to get it right. This doesn’t work. There is a term for when a few repeated efforts haphazzardly get desired results: luck. You don’t want to play the lottery with a performance. When you slow down, you have time to learn the steps needed to make the performance successful. You are actually learning a new skill when this happens. Slowing down allows you to think about the fine details and commit them to your new skill set. Once you’ve done this, you can do the opposite in the next tip.
5. AIM HIGH. If your goal is to run a 100 meter race, practice running 150. With 150 as your extreme, you will easily be operating at full steam when you make it to 100. Once a section has been conquered by slowing down, take it a little faster that it should be. Doing this will also reveal any weaknesses that might remain.
6. DO NOT PRACTICE MISTAKES. Play difficult passages slowly enough so that the motions are accurate. As you build speed and encounter mistakes, back off a little. This is similar to slowing down for a section to be rehearsed, but the emphasis here is to never play a part incorrectly while continually playing through a piece. Slow down for the difficult portion and return to the proper tempo after the trouble spot.
7. KEEP IT LOOSE. Don’t tense up. Think about your whole body and practice everything for the way you will eventually perform the entire piece. Anxieties that build as a challenging section approaches won't always be apparent in the parts of the body that manipulate the instrument. Keep those parts relaxed, but remember that your whole body is involved in the process of playing music. Be aware of how it is doing. Sometimes shoulders will get tense. Your posture could decline while focusing on the music. Check your breathing, especially if you’re not a wind player. Be sure you are getting enough air. Once stiffness sets in, it has a way of spreading and clamping down over an entire performance, so monitor the rest of your muscles as you go.
8. DON’T FRET A STEP BACK. Expect to lose a little ground the next day. Each practice session will yield results, but the start of each session isn’t always going to be as good as the end of the last one. Memorizing complex passages and techniques requires time to become second nature. It is at the heart of why practice is so important. We cannot truly master anything during one session of rehearsal or study. Prepare yourself for this by knowing that even though a section was worked on diligently for an hour that it will need review several more times. Do not put the pressure of disappointment on your development, and realize that each day’s growth will require touch up in future sessions.
9. KNOW WHEN YOU’RE COLD. Don’t judge your performance until you have warmed up. You are nowhere near your best until this happens. Avoid critical assessment in the first 15 to 30 minutes of playing. Sometimes, a warm-up routine that is suitable for your instrument and style can be helpful. Long sustained notes of various dynamic levels are good for wind players, as they have to warm up an instrument up as well. Scales and arpeggios that require some stretching while playing are good. Warm up your mind. Allow your thoughts to settle into what you are doing, especially if you have just been in traffic on the way to rehearsal.
10. GIVE YOUR CHOPS A BREAK. Instead of playing, try to visualize the music on your instrument. Close your eyes and watch the instrument play the notes. Do the same with the printed score if you are playing from sheet music. This technique has the added benefit of offering relief from the occasional bout of insomnia when done at bedtime. As you visualize, don’t skip details. If you can’t visualize all of the notes, you probably need more time studying before performing. Can you hear the entire piece in your head? Try to hear each and every note from start to finish without interruption. This will test your memorization of the music and strengthen your ability to concentrate on the performance. Any weak points in memory or execution will become apparent.
11. GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK. Make time for the things that keep you happy and healthy. Allow your mind to reflect not only on music, but all other aspects of daily life. Take a walk, or spend a few minutes daydreaming over a cup of tea. Get plenty of rest. Stay well hydrated. Eat what’s good for you. Enjoy the company of a friend or fellow musician. Spend some time with a good book, but not TV, unless that’s really your thing. Your mind is still processing all of the hard work from your practice session in the background as you rest and focus on other things, so, technically, doing this is also part of a good practice regimen.
12. TIMING IS EVERYTHING. Keep it honest: use a metronome. Practicing without one allows for the possibility of cheats in the performance. Do you unknowingly slow down for the harder parts? Sometimes, ironically, we speed up during difficult passages and create even more mistakes! Be aware of the timing of the whole piece, even the easier parts. I refer to a metronome after I’ve been working with a piece for a while, but you can use one throughout the process as well. As the proper tempo is practiced, the groove should reveal itself. It is a powerful force that will carry you like the unrelenting waves of the ocean, but it is easily spooked, and will certainly vanish if you disregard the timing of the piece.
13. MAKE TIME. Don’t skimp. 30-60 minutes a day or every other day is not unreasonable when learning a new skill, especially one that takes your playing to the next level. Be careful to avoid practicing for big chunks of time sporadically. While this is better than nothing, it will leave you short of your goals if you are working on something that involves a lot of memorization and unfamiliar techniques. A routine is best, such as every day after breakfast, or a specific time in the evening. If the requirements of a piece exceed your routine, or it is difficult for you to establish one, schedule time for yourself in a day planner. Treat it just like any other appointment that you can’t miss. Tracking your rehearsals with a calendar will also provide written proof of your accomplishment, which will provide additional motivation while giving you a good sense of how much time is required to study a piece of similar difficulty in the future.
14. KNOW THAT PRACTICE IS CUMULATIVE. The work you put in to learn a skill for a new song will be established when it occurs in future studies. Even if it becomes a little rusty before it is needed again, the time required to get it back will be shorter than learning it from scratch. This is obvious to a beginner who might learn a new note in one piece and is prepared for it when it arrives more frequently as etudes advance. A string player might encounter an arpeggio with a unique turn or fingering that will be approached with confidence in the future. Composers treat each session of writing as a valuable experience even if a new work is discarded: the next one will be crafted with that experience in mind. Consider each new technique that is developed for a particular piece to also be preparation for music you haven’t even thought of performing yet. From this mindset, each moment spent in the practice room is an investment in your lifetime of playing in addition to reaching more immediate goals.
15. PREPARE TO PERFORM. The ultimate goal of most rehearsal is usually a performance of some kind. Regardless of whether that performance will be for a teacher, an audience, or even just yourself, preparing for that performance is a valuable part of the rehearsal process. When you are beginning to feel that you have a new piece of music down, see if you can play it all the way through and be satisfied with the results. Once you are, make a video of yourself and watch the performance critically. The red light on the video recorder has a way of bringing potential pitfalls out of hiding. Work out any problem areas you may encounter. Once you’ve done that, perform the piece for an audience of one, such as a family member or friend. The act of playing music for for someone may reveal issues that the camera’s red light missed. Head back to the rehearsal room work on those areas. Finally, play the piece for someone who is not a family member or close friend in a setting that is not your house or studio. Try to get two or three people in your audience if possible. The comfort and familiarity of your private rehearsal space can sometimes give you false feedback about your performance. Beyond these steps, you could go one more step and try a larger audience and less comfortable surroundings such as an open mic or performer’s workshop. Ideally, your test audiences should give you their full attention throughout the performance, so be sure to ask for it in advance, but don’t ask for feedback. In this exercise, the performance critique will come from you. If you absolutely cannot resist asking for a critique, be sure the question is something very specific such as, “Did that fast passage of notes sound like it flowed into the next part? Here, I’ll play it again for you.” Never ask, “What did you think?” Most audience members feel put on the spot when asked this question, so try to avoid it. For the purposes detailed here, we really just require a few moments of time and nothing else.
16. REST. Let it breath for a couple of days. Burn out often creates a forest and trees situation where you get so caught up in working on specifics that more general performance issues get lost. The ultimate goal is to play music, and at the end of all of the time spent in the rehearsal studio, that’s what it should sound like you are doing. Taking a short break from a piece also allows for free “practice” where your mind can process the advances you have made and work out any problems in the background. When you return to the piece, you will be able to tackle challenges with a better understanding than you might have had without the break. Periods of rest can be applied within rehearsals as well. If a passage has really got you bogged down, take a moment and stretch, or get a glass of water. Sometimes, a short break will reset your perspective allowing you to use your time more effectively.
17. LISTEN. Keep your thoughts and ears focused on the end result: the sound coming out of the instrument. Difficult passages of music can take brain power away from listening as you make the necessary calculations to mechanically recreate the music. Practice these areas with this in mind so that they can be performed as evenly as the others with your complete attention to the sounds you are making. The easier moments in a piece can also lead to lapses in attentive listening, as we mistakenly take advantage of the reduced demands on brainpower to think about a hard part coming up or, at these moments, simply just loose focus. Follow all of the details of the less demanding passages with the same focus and enthusiasm that you would have for a difficult passage. Be vigilant during rehearsals to remove any bad habits that interfere with hearing every note that is played.
18. HAVE FUN. Don’t lose sight of why you play music in the first place. Make every moment that you are playing an opportunity to express yourself through the art you create and enjoy yourself as you celebrate your talent and hard work.