Practice Music Like A Pro

Published 30 Sep, 2019

Everyone knows the saying ‘practice makes perfect’. But what kind of practice? Perfect practice, of course. Here are some tips I’ve found helpful, and a list of things NOT to do if wasting time isn’t your thing. 

Rote-repeating a passage and multitasking does not work...

Many of us are at some point guilty of watching netflix, reading a book, or checking emails and replying to ‘sup’ texts while we repeat a tricky passage over and over again. As a pianist, if the multitasking aspect of playing two lines of music simultaneously was not enough, what would compel us to think that adding a third task to the equation would yield any results? If you find yourself getting bored whilst practicing, then step outside the practice room and stop fake-practicing. Whenever you feel the urge to multitask, you simply aren’t in the mood to focus, expecting results with little attention to detail. Many of us are prone to checking our phones constantly, and the best option to help us focus on the task at hand would be to eliminate the distraction completely. 

So say no to your phone and focus on the task at hand. 

Break up with your phone and trust that you will both follow the no contact rule. Turn your phone on either Silent, Do Not Disturb, or Airplane mode, depending on the level of addiction. Then tell yourself that it is okay to go half an hour without it - nothing terrible will happen. For many of us though, even being phones for 30 minutes is frightening..

What if there’s an emergency and I don’t pick up the phone and regret it?... What if I miss out on a great opportunity and the orchestra director calls someone else to replace Martha Argerich at Carnegie Hall? 

Set up a routine where you are allowed to check your phone at set intervals - even every 5 minutes is better than having the screen in our peripheral vision and being distracted by the flash of a new text/email or notification. Have you ever tried answering a phone call but writing a separate email about a different topic at the same time? Probably not because you forget what the person on the phone said while you were typing your email.  If listening to someone speak about something important requires your ears and mind to be 100% focused, so should practicing music. Not checking your phone means your brain doesn't have to constantly switch focus - it gets tiring and you lose your progress the second your attention was diverted. If you commit to this routine successfully, the reward is that both tasks are done with complete dedication and there’s no need to feel guilty about your bad practice session...a win win situation. 

It’s called a Practice Room but it doesn’t have to be bland. 

Search for the perfect environment for you to be able to concentrate. Aside from not having your phone as a distraction, the ideal practice room has a nice ambience and is warm and inviting. A room should inspire one to create, not feel like a concrete jail. Keep a pencil case, water bottle and anything else you need to ensure you can dive into practice with 100% dedication. Accept that the perfect environment doesn’t always exist, and in these instances, your mental state and determination to succeed must be exceptionally strong. 

Have a goal, even if it isn’t clear.

The reason why practicing is so hard is because if we want to serve the music, our goal is not only to play the notes and develop a perfect technique, but to look beyond the score and search for meaning. The truth is as corny as it sounds! Whilst that is the ultimate goal, we need to create small goals that will help us achieve it in the long run. If a passage isn’t working due to technical flaws, there are many ways to improve this: dotted rhythms, syncopation, the list is endless and we all create our own ways through trial and error. But what about when you can already play all of the notes perfectly?

A fail safe goal you should always apply, is to listen. Depending on the instrument you play, and the passage of music you are practicing, you need to be listening for different things, sometimes all at once. So do it step by step! Figure out what these things are for you: the mix of harmonies, voice leading in contrapuntal textures, molto legato in a solo melody...the list is endless and can be as specific or broad as the music requires, but it helps to keep a mental note or even write down what you plan on practicing and why. Keeping a practice journal is never a bad idea. 

On the topic of listening...record and listen to yourself.

Last, but not in the slightest bit least, this one is a no brainer but it takes guts. If you really want to practice like a pro then this is one of the hardest but quickest ways to learn. During a successful practice session we are listening to ourselves with full concentration to determine where the problems are before we attempt to solve them. Listening to a live recorded performance of yourself however, brings all the things we missed from our attention, and we are able to discover hidden problems or things we don’t like. Next time, before you even touch your instrument or warm up your vocal chords, listen to the last recording you made and make notes. If you’ve got the guts to perform live in front of an audience, you’ve got the guts to do this! 

Written by Kathy Chow