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Doniell Cushman loves to use her teaching experiences to inspire ways to improve music, teaching, and learning.
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I was asked just this week by a long time student of mine how he should be practicing. I'll have to be honest and say this floored me a little. "Wow," I said. "I'm so glad you asked me this." Keep in mind that my job as a teacher isn't just to teach you the concepts and material, it is also my job to impart the know-how and tools of practice.
So, without much further ado, here are 17 Hits to get the most out of your practice.
1. Warm Up - Pick an etude, play an easy song, get the blood moving in your fingers to have them ready and at their tiptop condition for practice.
2. Do your scales. Pay close attention in particular to ones that are the key of your pieces to practice. Remind your brain and your body that you need quick access to this knowledge. Patterns are crucial for any musician and scales are excellent pattern practice.
3. Play some Hanon. (See above) Transpose if necessary or applicable.
4. Take a study break. Look over your material carefully. Actually READ your music. You can even sit comfortably in a chair or on a couch for this portion of practice. Sing the song in your head as you read through it. Note all the highlights you need to remember (dynamics, articulations, tempos, etc.)
5. Use the 50% rule at least once per piece. Don't know the 50% rule? That means practice at exactly 50% of the speed of the piece you are working on. If you just have "Allegro", then select the slowest pace of 60 BPM.
6. Become friends with a metronome, and use it at least once per piece (all the way through). You may adjust as necessary by 2-3 or even 5 ticks, but make an entire practice through with it. Your timing and rhythm will improve, as well as your attention to speed.
7. Work in chunks. Take small sections of 2-4 measures at a time, and perfect them before stringing them all together. Be methodical about this.
8. Refrain from the desire to "fix mistakes" constantly. Ignoring mistakes is sometimes just as important as fixing them. You'll never make it through a piece if you constantly stop and start. Performances demand that time continues on, so allow yourself some grace. Then, return to chunking and the 50% rule to fix your mistakes.
9. Keep a pencil and highlighter handy. You may need notes, you may need instructions, or you might just need encouragement. Either way, a pencil and highlighter is a must if you want to succeed in practice.
10. Take brain breaks. Rest your thoughts and let loose a little by throwing in a fun song, playing something enjoyable, or just fiddling around on the keys. Your focus and intensity might suffer if you don't give yourself the space to relax a little.
11. Never quit practicing until you have worked on each assignment with 3 full run-throughs. This ensures you made mistakes, worked them through, and then attempted to perform to the best of your ability.
12. Practice in a variety of environments. Loud or quiet, we musicians put up with a lot. Plus, other people still have lives. If someone is making dinner and is whipping up a racket, put your practice skills to the test! If you have the chance to play on another instrument that isn't yours, try it out! If you have company, or the house is still asleep, give the keys a whirl. We build up our concentration and focus this way as we tolerate a lot of conditions we cannot control as musicians.
13. Sightread a piece of music. It can be new, it can be old, it just cannot be anything you're working on (or just worked on). This puts all of your theory skills to the test.
14. Try a video recording of yourself that you can delete later. Set it up so you can see your hands and hear the music, and then LISTEN CAREFULLY to the playback. This will give you a ton of information about yourself that you might not otherwise have known. Maybe you're sitting wrong, or maybe you missed all the F#s.
15. Practice your music backwards! Start with the last measure. Then the last 2. Then the last 3, etc. This gives your brain a bit of a workout and allows you to hear the music in a different way. It may even highlight important things you have overlooked.
16. Be positive with yourself, and stay calm. The worst thing to do is become frustrated with something you struggle on. Tell yourself that you can do better next time, and don't give up!
17. Try out an audience. Mom, dad, neighbor, babysitter, whomever! Wherever! Ask them for their positive feedback, and ask them if there's 1 thing they think you could work on. They might see and hear things that you don't, so use these to motivate yourself to success!