Every musician needs to practice. That’s a fact whether you are a beginner or a world-renowned virtuoso. Too often, however, we do not talk enough about HOW to practice. In a fast-paced world, efficient and productive practice also requires the ability to manage your time wisely. It is incredibly important to state that practice and time management are learned skills not unlike playing an instrument. I believe that they are two of the most important skills that any musician can learn.
In this article, I will take you through my Top Ten Tips for Effective Practice as well as some information on improving your ability to manage your time. These tips are presented as if the reader is a student taking weekly lessons with an instructor. They are applicable, however, to all musicians and can be tailored based on your situation.
1. TEACH YOURSELF
Practice is a class, and YOU are the teacher. Many university-level private studios require at least one hour of practice per day per credit hour of the lesson. So, if you are taking a two-credit lesson, that is at least 14 hours of practice per week. In many studios, more than that is required, but let us use 14 hours as an example.
In this scenario, you are practicing 14 times the amount of time each week that you spend in a lesson. Therefore, if you are waiting for the lesson to be taught, you are missing out on 14 more hours of instruction every week. So how do you teach yourself? Imagine you are your own student. Record yourself (audio and video) and listen back critically. Take notes and correct any errors or issues you find. This is not just about playing wrong notes. Critique your own musicality, phrasing, dynamic range, technique, and so on. Finally, ask yourself: “Why am I missing that note every time?” Diagnose what is happening physically to lead to the wrong note. Mindless repetition need not apply.
2. PRACTICE SLOWLY
Slow and deliberate practice is essential to achieve an accurate and musical performance. I do not like to say words like “always” and “never” in music, so instead I will say “almost always” practice with a metronome. It not only helps keep your rhythmic integrity intact, but it keeps you honest in regard to tempo in general. We tend to naturally play a phrase or section too fast too quickly after it is comfortable to play. Therefore, it’s easy to play faster and faster with each repetition without noticing if you are not using a metronome.
Slow practice takes patience, but it is necessary. Be sure to include dynamics, preliminary phrasing, and inflection at a slow tempo. Do not wait to add those things later. Also, you need to move and breathe like you will have to at tempo. Slow practice can encourage unnecessary, extraneous motion if you are not careful. Test a particularly difficult line at tempo just to see if the way you are moving works.
3. DIVIDE PRACTICE SESSIONS
Many practice sessions take on the format of what is called “blocked” practice. Blocked practice is when a soccer player tries to make 100 penalty kicks in a row. In music, it may be where someone tries to run through a section 10 times without playing a wrong note. This method can work, and we often feel great at the end of the session. However, at the start of the next session, you may feel like you have gone backwards overnight. Our brain is excited by new things and, in effect, bored by repetition.
Therefore, I suggest trying interleaved practice. This is breaking down the practice session into smaller segments and alternating between those segments throughout the session. For example, if you are practicing major scales on marimba, give yourself two minutes per scale. Set a timer on your phone or other device for two minutes, practice C major, and then move on to G major when the timer goes off. Repeat this for as many scales as you want to practice in that session. Just be sure you keep coming back to the first scales throughout the session until you’ve met your goal for the day.
4. PRACTICE SMARTER, NOT NECESSARILY LONGER
Efficiency is paramount in a busy world. Though it’s often necessary to practice long hours due to the sheer volume of material percussionists are asked to study, we can make our practice more efficient, productive, and positive. Take a break every 20–30 minutes at least. Even a two-minute break is extremely valuable to maintaining focus. Leave the practice room, get a drink or a snack, or take a quick walk outside if the weather is nice. This is refreshing and breaks the monotony of being in the same room for an hour or more.
I do not suggest, however, looking at your phone or other device. It is far too easy to go down a social media spiral and waste time that is supposed to be productive.
5. KEEP A PRACTICE LOG
If practice is a class, and you are your own teacher, a practice log is both your reflection on the current class and a lesson plan for the next class. As a teacher, would you not make notes about how today’s class went and make a lesson plan for the next one? Of course, you would! You are teaching this class called “Practice” and your student (you) deserves that attention to detail. You do not deserve a teacher (you) who is simply winging it and hoping for the best every day. (There is some information about what to put in your practice log later on in this article.)
6. PRACTICE AWAY FROM THE INSTRUMENT
Do not underestimate the value of practicing away from your instrument. Mental practice is a great way to test focus and mental stamina, as well as save your chops. Play the piece in your head. Imagine yourself moving, breathing, and playing. This can be done standing at the instrument or completely away from it.
Singing is another great option. This is especially great for working on phrasing. Every human can sing. Too often, percussion technique gets in the way of innate musical expression. Hit record on your device, sing the phrase, then play it. Does it sound the same? Are you playing it the way you want it to sound? If not, diagnose the issue and correct it.
Finally, you can play on another instrument. Playing marimba solos on piano is a fun challenge. Do you really know the notes or are you relying on muscle memory?
7. WRITE ON YOUR MUSIC
No musicians are “too good” to write on their music, nor can they remember everything without the visual cue of writing on the page. Circle dynamic, key, and time changes. Write in cues, places where you line up with a colleague rhythmically, and so on. Many percussionists like to use different colored highlighters for each of these different musical elements. Nothing is too small. It gives you less to remember in the moment. Get a pack of pencils, and make sure you always have one with you!
8. ADD VARIABLES
We can get very comfortable practicing by ourselves on the same instrument, in the same room, with the same lighting. To simulate performance anxiety, run down the hall before playing your piece. This will get your heartrate up, increase the rate of your breathing, and may make your hands feel a little shaky.
Speaking of shaky hands, know what effect caffeine has on your body. If you are taking a symphony audition with all those soft snare drum excerpts, and caffeine makes your hands shake, you will probably want to cut it out a few weeks before the audition.
Practice dealing with mental distraction by having a friend talk to you while you play or make random noises. If no one else is around, you can set a timer on your device to go off at a random interval. Say your piece is five minutes long. Set a timer for three minutes. It will go off in a random spot in the piece and you will need to keep playing through it.
Finally, get out of that same practice room as often as possible. Practice in other rooms — preferably the room you are going to ultimately perform in.
9. SET REALISTIC GOALS
Most likely, you will not learn an entire solo or etude in one practice session, so do not expect yourself to. Make sure you are getting clear expectations from your teacher. I give my students specific sections and tempos for next week’s lesson or rehearsal that I expect them to master. In your practice log, break down where you are and where you need to be.
My example is always this: I need to have this snare drum etude at 120 bpm in seven days for my next lesson. It is currently at 60 bpm. So, if I increase the tempo by 10 clicks each day, that will put me at tempo the day before my lesson. Setting realistic daily goals will allow you to succeed on the weekly level.
10. REWARD YOURSELF
Finally, be able to recognize when you have worked hard, hit your goals, and are able to reward yourself. It could be as simple as doing that Music Theory homework on Sunday instead of Saturday and giving yourself time to watch a movie. Another example is to imagine you were going to practice for two hours, but you reached all your goals in less time. You can stop early and make that your reward for hitting your goals. Obviously, there is danger there of convincing yourself you practiced enough. You need to hold yourself accountable. Rewards do not have to cost money, but if you like a certain food, feel free to treat yourself after a week or few weeks of hard work.
Now that you have seen an overview of my practice tips, I want to discuss time management as an equally important, and complementary, skill to effective practice. The most basic thing you can do is schedule your practice time each week. If your school has a weekly sign-out sheet, plan your week ahead of time, then sign it out and put it in your calendar. Then, hold yourself to it. It is a class after all! If you do not show up to class, how can you succeed?
The practice log is just as much a time-management tool as it is a practice tool. Be sure to take detailed notes about tempos, specific sections of pieces, and map out your practice session like a workout (warm-up, session goals, cool-down). Below is a basic example of a marimba session:
March 10 (1 hour): Warm-up: major scales with sequential sticking @ 100 bpm; Rotation 2: beginning to 21 @ 72 bpm (quarter note), 21–61 @ 120 bpm (eighth note), 61–end @ 66 bpm (quarter note); Cool-down: single alternating strokes @ 100 bpm.
Finally, prioritize based on the importance of a piece or performance and respective deadlines — importance meaning importance to your success, not necessarily your perception of importance or what you “want” to work on. What deadline is closest? What are you most behind on? Using a scheduling or to-do list app (like Microsoft To-Do or Evernote) can help map out each day.
I want to restate something from the beginning of this article. Practice and time management are learned skills. No one inherently knows how to do them. As strange as it may sound, practice takes practice. Time management takes practice. I’m willing to bet the source of a lot of stress in your life, or your students’ lives, is feeling behind or unprepared for a lesson, rehearsal, or performance, even though you practiced. If your routine is not working for you, take a chance by revamping your approach to your practice and your schedule and see what a difference it can make.
Dr. Justin Bunting has an active career as an international percussion educator, solo performer, chamber player, orchestral musician, clinician, and composer. He serves as Assistant Professor of Percussion at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He has performed with orchestras across the United States and appeared at multiple national and international conferences, conventions, and workshops both as a solo artist and member of Blue Line Duo. An advocate for new music, he has commissioned or premiered over 15 new works for percussion and has music published with C. Alan Publications and Bachovich Music Publications. Active in PAS, Dr. Bunting currently serves as President of the Arkansas chapter, a member of the World Percussion Committee, and a reviewer for the New Literature and Recordings section of Percussive Notes.