You know you need to practice, and your teacher (hopefully you have private teacher) probably gives you specific things to work on during that practice; but how do you get the most out of that time? I mean, really squeeze that practice for all it’s worth? I don’t know about you, but with the volume of music I need to practice, coupled with all the responsibilities on my plate, I must plan virtually everything in order to accomplish anything of great importance. This is where having a practice plan comes in handy.
What is a practice plan?
Practicing your music (or anything, really) is more than just blindly going through the motions, hoping it will improve. Real practice, the kind that makes people stand in awe of how much progress you’ve made, involves some thought ahead of time. A practice plan lays out what music or technique you need to work on, complete with specific items within that music on which to focus.
For example, mine looks a lot like one I found in The Musician’s Way, by Gerald Klickstein.
I list a new piece or two that I am working on, including specific sections that I want to focus on. This is where you break it down, and really analyze everything.
Music to refine
These are things where I’m nearing a performance – where I need to refine my vision of the piece (or pieces) and make sure it aligns with the director’s or my group’s vision. I’ll also spend extra time on those pesky phrases and yes, even individual notes within measures.
Scales, arpeggios, etc – with different rhythms and bowings to practice.
No musician is really complete without studying something, whether it’s theory or a historical figure. The more you know about music in general, from composers to chord structure, the better able you are to interpret music and do it justice.
Design your practice plan
I don’t use a detailed plan for everything these days, but I do with new music, or refining music for a performance. The technique and study sections are things I do without hesitation, and I know where I want to focus (Galamian’s scale book is handy here). I do, however, include the highlights of what I want to achieve in those areas. Still, about once a month I’ll go through my music, assess what needs to be done, and draw up a plan for the month.
I do keep a practice log, because it helps me honestly assess what I’ve done, how long it took me to achieve it, and where I need to go next.
Your practice plan as a student should be very, very detailed, and include a practice journal to document everything.
Sometimes you’ll need multiple pages to list what needs work, others you won’t. Whatever the case, be sure you do not limit yourself, but use it as a tool to keep yourself focused.
Small, specific goals work far better than large general goals. For example, saying, “Be careful with your bow” is a whole lot different that, “Keep the bow straight, remember to bend at the elbow.” Which would be more helpful to you? Telling someone to be careful with their bow could mean many different things, such as, “Don’t poke out my eye with that thing,” or “Hitting the tip on the ground will make it break.” Setting specific goals will give you a better net result, because they’re specific and achievable.
What is it that really separates the pros from the amateurs? Mostly it’s dedication to the craft, but setting specific, ambitious (but reasonable) goals that build confidence and skill are vital.
It’s not usually about talent, but about whether you’re willing to do the work.
Executing your plan
Initially, you may feel restricted by following a detailed plan. Remember that you wrote the plan! If you find that what you planned doesn’t work – don’t despair, change it up!
Take the amount of time you typically practice in a day, for most middle to high school students, this should be an hour per day on most days. Split it into two or three 20-30 minute blocks.
Practice is cumulative, meaning that every bit of focused practice really does make a difference!
It is important to schedule one day where you do not pick up your instrument. On that day, do something else musically oriented, like watching a documentary, studying theory, or reading about a favorite composer.
Speaking physically, your body needs time to rest, as any athlete will tell you. Music isn’t as physical as a sport like football, but as a musician, you can cause yourself harm with repetitive-motion injuries. These will most often happen when you’re over-tired, and over-practiced.
The best laid schemes of mice and men“To a Mouse” by Robert Burns
Go often askew…
When plans go sideways
All plans go haywire sometimes, and that is where your practice journal comes in handy. Document what you did and compare it to your plan. Ask yourself what went wrong, and find a way to correct it.
Being a musician requires a significant amount focus and planning, and things do not magically get better – you have to be pro-active, and that means hours of brutally honest self-analysis.
What tools do you use to analyze your progress?