How to get more from your music practice

Have you ever had that nagging feeling that you’re not getting everything you could out of your practice time?

There’s such an overwhelming quantity of material that you need to practice that you end up rushing to get through everything.

And you don’t do the best job on any of it.

It’s so easy to give into that temptation to cram more in – even if it means that quality and depth suffer as a result.

But you know that quality is important, right?

And it turns out that there are some simple and practical things you can do to increase the quality of your practice sessions.

Whatever you happen to be working on.

Every time you go to practice.

What’s the point of practice?

Effective practice delivers results that stick. And that are be usable.

In other words, you’ve got to be able to hold on to the information and skills that you learn over the long term. And you’ve got to know it deeply enough that you can apply it easily in real time as you play.

I’ll get to the practical details of how to do this in just a second.

It’s going to help, first, if we go over the two things that will stop this from happening.

Problem 1: lack of focus

You need to have high levels of concentration throughout your practice session to help the new information stick to go deep into your long-term memory.

Now, this means making sure that you’re focused at the start of practice sessions.

And keeping them reasonably short so that you can maintain that focus throughout.

A great answer to the question, “How long should I practice for?” is “As long as you can remain focused”.

Little and often focused practice easily beats occasional bingeing.

Problem 2: not going deep enough

You probably move on from the topic you’re practicing too soon.

Sure, you might know it theoretically.

Or be able to do it to an okay level.

But you don’t really own it.

Not to the point where you’re able play it easily and flawlessly in a performance situation.

Under all sorts of pressure.

So you want to be going deep into what you practice.

Pick a topic that really matters. Break it down into small, achievable steps.

And then stick with that topic until you’ve made really significant progress.

Bringing it all together

You want to stick with a topic over time, working on it little and often.

That allows you to maintain focus in each individual practice session.

But also, over time, build up the depth that you need to really know stuff.

A great way to do this is to always have a small number of different topics on the go. That way, you can rotate between them, keep things fresh, not spend too long on anyone in each individual day.

But you’re always making progress, and you’re sticking with those few over time and really going deep.

How to put this into practice

You’re going to do four things:

  1. Plan in advance
  2. Set an intention
  3. Take short breaks
  4. Use timers

1) Plan your practice in advance

Pick one specific area. And put those other topics that you might want to work on to one side for the moment.

Know exactly what exercise you’re going to work with on your chosen topic.

Know what your goal is for that exercise.

Now, this takes some time to do, but the time you spend planning is going to pay off in results in the long-term.

I personally like to spend a bit of time thinking about the topic as a whole first.

I usually do that only once – at the point where I’ve decided this is something I’m going to focus on.

That’s when I plan out what the big picture is going to look like.

But then, on a daily basis, just the night before, I pick which precise exercise I’m going to work on the next day.

That’s how I plan things on a day to day basis.

2) Set an intention

Just before you actually start to practice, you want to set an intention for that session. This is about being present and focused during your practice.

It’s also an opportunity to remind yourself of exactly what your goals and exercises are.

So just take a second to calm your mind before you start.

Rather than jumping straight into the practice.

You might like to close your eyes, take a few deep breaths.

That sort of thing.

It’s much, much easier to make sure you get focused properly before you start, than to try and build up that focus during the session itself.

3) Take short breaks

But no-one can maintain strong focus forever.

So you’re going to want to take some short breaks. These allow you to recharge that focus again.

To make sure they happen, plan these breaks in advance.

An absolute minimum of one break every hour. I like to go a bit shorter – maybe one five-minute break in every half hour.

That should be plenty to recharge your batteries, take your mind off things, then come back focused.

4) Use a timer

It’s easy to get lost in what you’re playing in the heat of the moment.

So use a timer just to make sure that you do actually respect your plan to take breaks.

It’s also important to limit the time that you spend on any one topic before you switch to another one.

Now, this could mean switching from one topic to a completely different one. Or it could mean switching from one exercise on a topic to a related exercise.

Timed breaks, together with planning it in advance, make it easy to ensure this happens.

Which are you going to add into your practice first – setting an intention or using a timer? Let me know in the comments below.

  • Hello Mark! Thank you for the ebook and videos. I like how your principles can be applied to more than just music. About the question ” Intention or timers ?” , for me, they really go hand in hand. There is so much I need to learn and I want to learn it all, but of course I get dispersed when I do practice without a plan or a particular goal, and then I end up practicing for hours, 4, 5 or 6 hours, jumping from one thing to the next and sometimes or most of the time, I get to where I am feeling overwhelmed and I burn myself out, because I do have a huge amount of focus ability. Then I take several days “off” to recuperate. So my intention will be to plan my topic, plan my exercises, take smaller bites of information, go deeper into the individual topic and take breaks. Thank you for your helping attitude. By the way I will apply this to my painting hobby also. I do the same thing, paint for 6 or 7 hours without eating, drinking or breathing sometimes it feels like. I guess I am very intense. So much to learn, time presses on, but I get it, it should go quicker if I slow down a bit , take a breather and relax; it’s not a life or death situation. Have a nice day or evening and thank you once again. Gwen

    • You’re very welcome, Gwen. And, yes, I think it’s really worth looking at ways to limit the amount of practice/painting you do in any one session if this leads to you taking several days off as a result. There are a number of reasons why a relatively small amount of practice every day (or whatever your consistent, regular schedule is) ends up being much more effective in the long-run than huge “binge” sessions with large gaps in-between.

    • Did it. Planned. Set an intention. Used a timer.
      Was amazed how focused I could be, and how much work I got done. Could let go my insecurities, and just focused on what needed to be done. Felt good after and looking forward to taking on the next musical intention, and looking forward to doing same next day. Good stuff. Thank you.

      • So glad to hear this, Maria. It’s surprising how effective seemingly simple actions can be, isn’t it?

  • Hi everyone:-)
    Looking for timer apps for the iPhone, I just discovered a very useful one: Habit Hub.
    Even the free version allows to create sequenced sessions with multiple steps, each with a specific duration and title (eg minor scales 6min then minor arpeggios for 3 min and so on.).
    It’s available on the (french) Appstore here, but I guess ypu can find it on your local appstore:
    Hope this helps, and can’t wait reading more on this !

  • I’m going to apply both intention and timer, along with setting my goal for the session and plan ahead. I think this will really help focus my efforts. I find I get overwhelmed because there’s sooo much to learn, but your techniques and strategies seem like an excellent way to proceed! Thank you for your information sharing.

    • Glad you found it useful, Shan. The trick to avoiding overwhelm is to accept that it’s simply impossible to do everything. And then just focus on doing one thing at a time. And doing it well.

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