My practicing routine. And how do you practice?
It's no secret that practicing is an integral part of being a performing musician.
During my study years I often practiced 6-7 hours per day and at one point, during my first year at the conservatory, I decided to try and practice for 12 hours each day (except for Sundays) as an experiment. I wanted to see for myself whether there would be any fast changes or accelerated improvements in my playing.
The result? I lasted for two weeks. After the usual 6 hours my concentration was all over the place! I caught myself mindlessly repeating the same passages or sections of the pieces while thinking about something completely different. My little experiment proved to me that in order to have an efficient practicing session I needed about 5 hours of focused goal-oriented work per day.
Keep in mind that practicing is subjective and it varies from person to person. It also depends on the time available. As a student, I had plenty of time to practice, but nowadays I need to be able to get the most out of the time I have on my hands.
A few young musicians have asked me what my practice routine is and that was the catalyst for this post. These are my personal steps and considerations, so don't take them as a guide. Filter them, try them out, take what's good, figure out what works for you and leave the rest.
Warm up. Depending on how much time I have available, my warm up includes sight reading. Nothing too complicated, but stimulating enough to kickstart my brain, fingers and hands. I will take some scores lying around or my laptop and read from there. It can be a classical music piece, it can be a pop song, a jazz tune, whatever I feel like playing in that moment. As a warm up, I could also play a piece from my repertoire, if there's not enough time to do a bit of sight reading. The warm up can last anywhere between 10 and 50 minutes.
Now, the core practicing begins. The main question here is "what needs my attention today?". I try to plan what I will be working on before sitting down and warming up. Even better, plan the night before. That way you can mentally focus on the practicing process before entering the room. In fact, my core practicing begins even before the warm up, with writing down the fingers I'll be using, the direction of the bellows (for strings it could be the direction of the bow, for example), the phrases, dynamics, details to which I'll be paying attention. When I am doing that, my brain is already processing (and perhaps mentally practicing) the piece, imagining how my body feels and how my hands and fingers will be reacting to performing it.
Set clear goals for your practicing sessions. If you don't have them in place there's a big chance you'll be playing through sections or the entire piece several times without making any real progress.
Examples of clear goals: I learned the second theme of the Sonata; I learned the first page of the Gigue; I memorized the Adagio section; I mastered the articulation in the Presto; etc.
Note the use of language when defining your goal. If I were to say "I will learn the second theme of the Sonata today" it is placing the focus on the intention, not the result. You want goals that bring results and the examples above highlight precisely that aspect.
Right before the core practicing begins, eliminate all distractions from your practicing space. No smartphones, no laptops, no tablets, no magazines and whatever can attract your attention. Studies have shown that it takes about 30 to 45 minutes to get back into focused work once you get distracted (even for a second!). I tried putting the "don't disturb", flight mode, silent mode, but, unfortunately, I would pick the smartphone up now and then to look at my social media. Smartphones are designed to capture our attention, so the wisest thing to do would be to set it on silent mode and leave it in a different room, or in a bag, or anywhere you won't see it for at least an hour. Don't worry, the world won't end in the mean time.
I take regular breaks when practicing. I would normally sit down for an hour at a time. Sometimes it can be a bit more, sometimes a bit less, depending on the goal and if I am fully focused or not. The regular breaks help you maintain focus and recalibrate your attention on the next task. It also helps you not get exhausted and overwhelmed. A break can last 5 to 20 minutes depending on the day, how you are feeling and the time available.
Take a day off. There's always one day per week in which I am not practicing by choice. In my case, Sundays are my days off. The Conservatory of Trieste was closed on Sundays so I couldn't go and practice. That stayed with me up to this day and keeps on bringing benefits.
This point might seem counterproductive, but time and time again it proved not only useful, but crucial. If, for someone reason, on that particular day, you don't feel like sitting down and practicing, go for a walk, go to the cinema, hang out with your friends, do something you enjoy and which brings you value. There's no point in forcing yourself to do something your body refuses to do on that day. Paraphrasing James Clear, author of "Atomic Habits", nothing awful happens if you skip a day, the problems start when skipping becomes a habit.
I don't normally use a metronome in my practicing, except for two instances. The first one is to check the final TEMPO of the piece I am working on. The second one involves fast and/or challenging parts of the piece. I would start off that section in a slower tempo and after a few repeats I would increase the speed of the beats on the metronome. The clear goal would be something like "I mastered those bars in the final tempo". Again, this is very subjective and depends on the person.
If you need help or would like to talk about your doubts in becoming or continuing your career as a professional musician, you can book a virtual coffee with me or a one-to-one coaching session on my website.
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Comment below and let me know what you found useful when practicing.