As young musicians, our tendency for practicing is to pick up our instrument and just go, essentially just hoping for the best. There is some progress you’ll see over a long period of that style of practicing but, ultimately, it is just shy of a waste of time. When you put a little time into organizing your practice session and understanding what you want to achieve, you’ll get more done in one day than you have in an entire week of the former practice style mentioned above. It’s just logic, so why don’t we all do it? Because it’s hard. It requires thought, focus, and energy that we haven’t engaged with yet. However, if you do organize your practice sessions you will find that your efficiency shoots through the roof and you start seeing some serious progress. You’ll begin to notice that ideas you struggled with last week begin to improve at an unprecedented rate, you’ll stay more focused for longer, you’ll spend less time on trivial things, and begin to enjoy the process of learning!
So, how do you organize practicing? There are a few things that you can start today to begin this journey of improving your practice with organization!
1 – Set Goals
Any one of my students or consulting clients will tell you that I believe setting goals is the single most important thing you can do for yourself. In the practice room, the first thing you do before you even pick up your instrument is write down what you want to achieve that day. Keep it simple like notating your fingerings, memorizing a passage, or doing a harmonic analysis of one of your pieces. But write them down. At the end of the day when you look back at your list and see 5-10 things checked off, it gives you a sense of accomplishment that boosts your morale and inspires you to continue the process tomorrow. The act of setting goals allows you to create a practice strategy that is aimed at something rather than just being a general attempt to improve as you go.
2 – Practice Journal
I’ll be honest, this is one thing that I need to start doing again. Keep a journal on your music stand and dedicate 5 minutes at the end of every day to logging what you’ve done that day. Keep track of your successes, failures, and personal feelings. Yes, I said failure. You’re going to fail and that’s ok! Failure is only a negative thing if you give up and don’t make an attempt to learn from it and improve the next day. So keep track of those failures as well. Log what caused you to succeed or fail. Maybe you went about something the wrong way or maybe you tried a new practice routine that worked well. Write it all down so you don’t forget it and can look back in time and learn from the mistakes and successes of your younger self.
3 – Use Technology
It’s 2020 folks, we have access to some impressive technology right on our phones! There are several applications that I really like. The first is simply ProMetronome. Like the name implies, it’s a digital metronome. The free version is simple and effective but the paid version has some really good features. It allows you to create complex rhythmic units if you’re playing advanced music like Piazzolla, where the placement of accents and articulations can completely change the soundscape of the piece. It also allows you to log your tempo markings with date stamps so You can see tempo improvements. My favorite feature though is this: It allows you to save and label your settings as presets. So if you have a passage that takes daily practice, click the preset and you’re off. No need to redesign your settings and set the sounds, subdivisions, and accents because you already did it!
The second app I like is called Modacity. This is a practice aid that acts somewhat like a log or journal. You enter the pieces you’re preparing in playlists and organize them in any order you like. I have several playlists including my solo program, chamber music, warmup routine, and technical exercises. Click on the piece you want to practice and then the app logs your practice time for you. At the end of your day or week you can go back and view your statistics, allowing you to make improvements in your organization. The app also has a ton of useful features like an audio note recorder to analyze your playing aurally, a metronome, written notes so you can jot down things to do tomorrow, a timer, a messaging center where you can talk to a modacity musician for feedback, and reminders that will send you a notification on your phone to practice. There are some very useful tools packed into this one app. Again, the free version gives you the basics but the paid version is well worth a try if you have organizational problems.
Technology can be your friend if you give it a chance!
4 – Create a Schedule
I like this one a lot. Create an actual practice schedule that you can stick to. It can be as simple as a list of things to practice that day or as complex as a full schedule for the week. I’ll give you two examples. The first is an example from my brother who is studying cello performance. He’s actually created a schedule for his general work week. It’s even color coded! What I like about this is that he’s arranged his flexible items around his non-flexible items and has built in personal time. Personal time is crucial to your mental health so make time for you! Now, my one critique is that this doesn’t specify what exactly he’s going to do in each session, rather it gives a guide for where he needs to be and when, which is also very important. Those 2-3 hours every night are set aside just for practicing and nothing else. If you can do that, you’re one step closer to efficient practicing.
The second example is my own practice schedule for solo performances. This is a revolving, five-day schedule that balances old repertoire with new repertoire. More time is given to pieces of higher difficulty that are newer and less time given to pieces of lesser difficulty that are older. It prioritizes and facilitates learning newer music at a faster rate but leaves time for additions or changes as I see fit. I find this very helpful because I’ve already determined what I believe to need the most work and gives me a starting place every day. I use the modacity app and have a playlist for each group with notes, recordings, and time statistics that I review at the end of the week. Sometimes I fail my goals but, again, that’s ok because I tweak my routine in little ways the next week to improve.
Whatever schedule you create, use it as a way of knowing what to work on or when to work on it. It organizes your physical practice time as well as your mental energy.
These are four strategies that I employ to have the most efficient and positive practice sessions that I can. There have been plenty of failures along the way, but since I’ve started thinking in more of an organized manner, I’ve learned from my failures, had more successes, and learned to love the process of practicing/learning and not just the results. I highly recommend you find ways to better organize your practice routine if you haven’t already.
Best of luck to you as you continue your musical journey!