As a musician at any level, there are few things more frustrating and disheartening than being stuck and not knowing how to move forward in your playing.
Do you ever sit down to play and feel like you are just recycling the same ideas over and over? We’ve all been there.
Free play is definitely important! It can be therapeutic and fun, but it won’t necessarily make you a better player. In contrast, practicing is what gives us the tools to do more with our free play.
I suggest making a clear distinction between time spent playing and time spent practicing.
What I mean by practicing is this: focused, intentional work towards a specific result. I use this definition in a broad sense to include anything that is goal oriented, which can include anything from technique to composition.
Playing is when we just sit down and enjoy the skills that we have built through our practice. Free play is valuable for creativity, but having a more clearly defined line between playing and practicing can help us expedite our improvement. It also offers some important contrast to help us be more clear about when we are trying to improve vs. when we are just having fun with music.
Both are extremely important.
There isn’t a whole lot of point in playing music unless it is fun. Also, there isn’t a very good chance that you’ll continue playing unless you are having fun. That being said, you’ll have more fun when you are better. Thus the importance of both.
Effective practice is at the heart of true progress. Effective and deliberate practice in a consistent manner, over time, creates amazing results.
I’m guilty of countless wasted hours over the years in practice sessions that lasted way too long and weren’t nearly as effective as they could have been. Hopefully I can help you avoid some of the mistakes that I’ve made with this simple guide.
These ideas have worked really well for me:
1) Daily practice time goal: How much time do you have to dedicate to practicing/playing? If you have an hour, divide that up into a practice/playing split. I suggest something like an 80/20 split between practicing & playing, or something close to that.
2) Segment the practice time: So if you have one hour to practice, 80/20 split would give you 48 minutes for practice and 12 minutes for free playing. Segment your 48 minutes into sections; for this example I like the idea of 12 minute segments.
3) Set the timer: Set the timer on your phone to your segment time (i.e. 12 minutes) and hit start, then…
4) FOCUS: Focus! Focus!! Focus. Its only 12 minutes, or 20, or whatever you decided on (ideally not more than 20-30 at a time). Turn your phone to do not disturb mode and really get into the topic at hand. Focus as single-mindedly as possible for this short period. When the timer goes off you can check instagram and get a glass of water or whatever you want, but while the timer is going you have to focus completely. This is hugely important, so I’m going to hammer on this one. Studies have shown this type of focused practiced to be WAY more effective. If you clear distractions and focus in shorter bursts (rather than if your attention is diffused over a longer period of time) you will achieve greater results. For a little more inspiration on this topic, watch this:
5) Use a metronome: Please. Nobody wants to play with (or listen to) musicians with bad time, so do yourself a favor and be strict about this. Practice slow and clean, and work up over time. It’s worth the extra effort. I use Metronomics (https://metronomicsapp.com/) because it has excellent features that can help big time. I’ll go into detail about ways to creatively use metronomes in a later article.
6) Bonus – Keep a practice journal: This a bonus because I don’t see it as imperative, but it helps. I didn’t use one for a very long time, but once I started diving into efficiency and productivity I tried it and loved it. I write down what I’m working on and how long I practiced each topic, tempo I’m practicing it at, along with the date. It’s nice to look back and see what I was working on months and years ago, and gives a greater sense of forward motion over the long haul. It’s optional, but suggested.
Try this for a few weeks and let me know what you think! It really doesn’t take any added time, just a little more effort to segment and focus. If you have any questions send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you.