Organized, Habitual, and Intelligent Practice, Part 1

The act of practicing - actually being in a room with your instrument and applying your musical ideas and instrumental techniques to a work of music - is one of the most innate parts of being a musician. Yet, despite it’s importance in the field, many students don’t know how to practice! They spend inordinate amounts of wasted time playing one thing or another, lofty goals never being achieved. Teachers spend too little time discussing both practice techniques and musical organization, expecting - ridiculously - that their students will simply “find their own way.” Students, on the other hand, don’t realize the progress they could be experiencing if only their practice were more regimented and their techniques more refined.

Why wouldn’t we want to be as competent in the art of practicing as we are with our instrumental technique. Preparation in the practice room breeds outstanding, convincing performances. This little chat isn't about what I think one should do when problems arise in the practice room; mostly, I'll talk about building a regimented practice schedule as well as what one can do before the practice starts, and how to go about the day-to-day scheduling of practice time.


I believe the most important parts of practice is the PLACE we practice. The practice room must be a place where you’re comfortable. Though performance is the most visible "work" that the musician does, practice is the real work, and the practice room is the office. How many times have you heard of a person seeking a different job - or even career field - because of their work environment? The practice room is to performers what the office is to Michael Scott. So find a place to work where you feel comfortable, happy, engaged, and inspired. Don’t practice where you can’t focus. I know a cellist who practices in the dank, dark basement of his apartment building because it’s the only place he can focus. If you have the luxury, set a space in your home devoted to practice.

Furnish your space with the right equipment, anything you think you might need to accomplish your task: metronomes, tuners/drones, pencils, ALL THE MUSICS, and your instrument. Be sure that you have all the right equipment. If you need to watch yourself in the mirror when you play (a very helpful tool), find a place with a full length mirror or two. If you require audio feedback to hear what you sound like, make sure you have a recording device.

Any musician that you talk to (worth his/her salt) has goals for things they’d like to accomplish. They might be outlandish ("I want to be the principal cellist of the Berlin Phil in five years") or the might be somewhat modest ("I want to master the etude I'm curently playing"). No matter which side of the fence you fall on, as a musician, you should have both short and longer term goals.


Short term goals are incredibly helpful when it comes to your daily practice. Each day of practice should begin with the question, “What do I want to accomplish TODAY?!” Would you like to get measures 1-5 in tune? Memorize the first two phrases of the third movement? Develop thoughtful ideas on the moods of the prelude? Asking, "What do I want (or need!) to do TODAY?" should drive your daily schedule.

Long term goals are much more difficult to define. It’s harder to think about where you want to be in 2 months, 6 months, 1 year, or 5 years. Large goals are much broader: learn, memorize and perform the Mendelssohn Concerto; record the Six Bach Suites; or GET A JOB! One must have long term goals to be able to justify and decide on those for the short term. Long term goals help to clarify the short term goals (Long term goal: In one year I want to complete Dvorak Concerto; Short term goal: memorize the first phrase of the exposition today.) and short term goals help to achieve the long term goals (I can’t finish Dvorak if I can’t memorize the first phrase of the exposition - and every other phrase after that). 

But how to achieve these goals? It’s really all about regimented practicing!


After you’ve developed goals - both short and long term - you must develop a plan to achieve each goal. Whether you’re learning a piece that you’ve never seen or heard before, or relearning an old favorite, I believe that you should begin the practice process with these three things: coffee, a pencil, and airplane mode.

You must sit with your music before you can sit with the cello. A piano playing colleague of mine finds that the best work occurs while playing arts and crafts with the part (finding the best page turns, copy/pasting various measures, using white out to change confusing markings - because sometimes an F-double sharp is just obnoxious to see on the page).