Organized, Habitual, and Intelligent Practice, Part 2

After you’ve spent a few hours with the music, maybe listened to a recording, and (For string players) you’ve got fingerings and bowings marked in (some you’ll love, some you’ll hate -- keep that eraser handy). What happens now?

You’ve done all the pre-practice room work, so once you finally sit down to play, you must find a way to go back to the goals. What do you want to accomplish TODAY?! Managing expectations is key and one of the major problems that many of my students and colleagues have is avoiding the “Google Trap.” We - most of you and I - grew up with the internet and we’re a very impatient bunch because of it. Instantaneous results of epic proportions do not happen in the practice room. You will not - NOT - finish the Mendelssohn concerto the day you begin work on it. So why expect to? You probably won’t even play that first phrase in tune, if you play the right notes at all. So, again, why expect to?

By using your short term goals, you can come up with a practice plan that will greatly increase your productivity and will generate results faster than any practice before.

Rhonda Rider, my great teacher and mentor, used the phrase “20 hours per week, or 20 minutes of shame,” when talking about performing. You must be habitual, you must practice consistently - Rhonda advocates for 6 days of practice per week and one day where you don’t even lay eyes on your cello, a welcomed day off - to achieve your goals, in this case the goal was, “play this 20 minute piece and don’t embarrass myself or my teacher!” 


To live up to this Rider-ism, I’d suggest a few things which might help you to get closer to that 20 hour mark:

1. Determine when you can practice.

We schedule so many things in our lives: our classes, gym time, when we eat and when we watch TV, why not schedule our practice as well? Sit down with your calendar and look over your schedule for the week. When would you like that day off? When can you NOT practice? This goes for both times that are occupied by other tasks (class, etc.) or times when you know you won’t accomplish anything. It's important to know when you work best.

2. You should also understand that dedicated, intelligent practice is EXHAUSTING!

When you finish practicing, you should feel as though your brain has just competed in a mental decathlon. We all know the extra-musical benefits of studying music (a strong work ethic, focus, ability to give and receive constructive criticism to ourselves and others) but so many don’t realize that developing these skills is HARD! Looking at a four bar phrase and determining the direction, high and low points, how in or out of tune you were/are, rhythm, not to mention all the technical aspects of playing our instruments - these things are hard to do! Doing these things - actually, really doing them - for a long period of time can and should be mentally draining. So, all of that said, don’t schedule a practice session when you can’t focus or when you’re too tired to run that decathlon. If you’re not a morning person, 8:00 AM practice probably isn’t for you. If you get ridiculously hungry at noon, maybe don’t schedule two hours starting at 11:00.

3. Time away from the instrument is just as important as time with the instrument.

There are two sides to this coin. Sitting on your couch with your metronome, counting/clapping/singing rhythms is just as important as working with your instrument. Schedule time with just you and your score and think just as hard about things as you would in your practice room. Also important is the time away from your instrument and music in general. Take it from me there are some amazing things outside your practice room. Read a newspaper or take a walk. Enjoy a nice meal with the significant other or friends you haven’t seen in six weeks (because you’ve been practicing). Basically, get away from the instrument. It will refresh your brain and keep you from burning out.


That’s it. That’s enough. You might think you can do it, but you’re probably wrong. Even five hours is pushing it, and four is probably the better number. If someone says they’re practicing eight hours per day, they’re either lying to you or they are wasting their time. (Don't believe me? Ask Itzhak Perlman.) There is solid statistical and neurobiological evidence to show that human beings can only process so much information at once. It’s why all-nighters are ridiculous and counterproductive. If you are actually sitting in a practice room for eight hours per day, you’re probably not practicing intelligently which, again, is a waste of time and energy.

Once you’ve scheduled your practice for the week, hopefully reaching that magic number of 20 hours, start to think about WHAT you’re going to practice and develop your plan for the session. This is very important. Don’t walk in to the room without knowing what you need/want to work on.

To be continued, PART THREE!