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What to Practice Before You Practice: Part 1 by Michael Compitello

Jan 30, 2023, 08:00 AM by Rhythm Scene Staff

Practicing is only part of the work that musicians do. The learning we do outside the practice room is not difficult, but it is powerful. Purposeful pre-practice work saves time, increases your efficiency within the practice room, heightens your impact as an interpreter, and diminishes performance anxiety. At the same time, working on the overall skills of learning in addition to developing as a practitioner of your instrument supports passionate advocacy for your work in a variety of mediums. Below are some of my tips for making the most of your time inside the practice room by developing your skills outside the practice room.

Life Cycle of Learning 
Practicing occurs within a dynamic learning cycle of framing, planning, playing, reflecting, and sharing. Here’s my outline:

Compitello Life cycle of Learning


Research and analyze the piece at hand to set the stage for efficient practicing. Contextualize the work historically, culturally, and musically in order to characterize the composer’s style. Then, dig into details, listening intuitively to find important moments in the music and finding support in the musical text for that intuition. Develop a sense of what the piece might feel like when it’s “right.” This multi-sensory structure is what psychologist Anders Ericsson calls a “mental representation.” Your goal when researching and practicing will be to hone and refine these mental representations, which help you set a range of interpretations you might pursue, diagnose issues, and make hypotheses about what kind of practicing will help you best progress.

Prepare yourself to learn the piece with the goal of making your time in the practice room as efficient and dynamic as possible. With a strong sense of what you want the work to sound like in mind, make a plan for how to effectively craft your interpretation. This plan will include long-term markers, session-by-session goals, and a strategy to handle multiple pieces in various stages of development. 

In the practice room, play with the musical material. Address both physical and mental challenges. Work towards goals, but be informed by creativity and inspiration. As you refine the piece, shift between different projects to allow your work time to incubate.

Review your progress, articulating what worked and what didn’t, and incorporate these ideas into your next work sessions.

Our role as musicians is intrinsically tied with sharing. All of these practices — framing, curating, situating, engaging, performing, and advocating — are so much easier when you have a deep, multisensory knowledge.

At this stage, you can frame your work in relation to the world around you, curate a space for the piece to live, situate the piece in that spot with regards to how you are going to share it, and engage with communities about it. Then, recast “performance” more broadly: it could be a concert, an article, a recording, or a conversation. 

Devote time to connect with the world around you. You’re training to develop connections between people through music. You’ll do this more effectively if you are engaged beyond the practice room. Read, listen, eat, see: participate with the world around you and you’ll find inspiration for your interpretations and be inspired about where your music-making can do the most good. At the same time, cultural fluency helps to connect with others around shared experiences, generating social capital that can help take on the big problems we face as a society and species. 

These processes occur in a dynamic loop, constantly feeding one another as learning inspires learning. This strategy is effective because it incorporates research into how our bodies learn and refine new tasks, leverages the power of humanities methodologies to link learning and advocacy, and uses powerful goal setting to save time. If you invest time and energy into each of these ideas, your practicing will be more effective, efficient, purposeful, and interesting.

Part 2 of this article will provide additional strategies to get you going more tangibly with this process.

Michael CompitelloMichael Compitello is dedicated to exploring the expressive possibilities of percussion through collaboration and community-building. His project Unsnared Drum, released 2021 on New Focus Recordings, seeks to reinvent the snare drum with “superb performances” (Classical Voice of North Carolina) of new works by composers Nina C. Young, Hannah Lash, Amy Beth Kirsten, and Tonia Ko. With cellist Hannah Collins as the New Morse Code, Michael has created a singular, personal, and impactful repertoire through collaboration with some of America’s most esteemed young composers. His current project is a book about musical learning. Michael is Associate Professor of Percussion at Arizona State University. He holds degrees from The Yale School of Music and the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University. For more information, visit

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