When learning to play a musical instrument, you are told to practice, similarly to when in school, you are told to study, but nobody tells you "how to", except in very general terms. In this article we will look at practicing, and some methods that may aid you in your practice. Hopefully then you will be able to practice in a more effective and fruitful manner.
The first thing that students misunderstand is the importance of daily practice. In the beginning, this is vital to good progress. If you miss a day of practice, it is like missing two days. The day that you miss, your progress to that point stops, and you may actually lose ground. You next practice session will be spent just getting back to where you were before you missed the day. So now you have in effect lost two days, and not until the next day will you begin to make any progress. By missing further days, the problem just compounds. This results in a lot of frustration for the student. Most beginning students’ problems can be traced to lack of daily practice.
Realistic Practice Sessions
Keep your practice time to amounts that are realistic for you. Say you want to practice an hour a day, but find that after twenty minutes you are either getting frustrated, or find that your mind is wandering. To do your hour then, break it into three twenty minute practice sessions, rather than one straight hour. In this case, the three twenty minute sessions are going to be a lot more effective than the one hour session.
Practice Small Amounts
Learn to practice in small chunks at a time, and repeat those a lot of times. For example, when learning a new piece of music, play only one measure at a time. Repeat it until you can play it correctly, both pitches and meter. Then move to the next measure following the same procedure. When you have mastered the second measure, then do the first and second together, so that you can make the transition from one to the other without pausing. Continue through the piece in a similar manner. Remember that eventually any piece will repeat, so when you get to those parts, you will already have "learned them", and can move on to the next new section.
If this is still too difficult then first, just play the meter, using one note on your instrument. This will allow you to just focus on getting the rhythm right. Remember when you were trying to play something that at first you did not recognize, and it seemed very difficult? Then when you realized that you had heard it before, it became very easy. That is because in part, you recognized the rhythm. By practicing just the rhythm, you learn to recognize it, and can then concentrate on the pitches.
Take the same approach with the pitches, playing them all as quarter notes. Concentrate on playing the right notes with correct fingering, remembering to do only one measure at a time. This will help you to do the physical moves to play the line, as well as concentrating on getting the correct notes. If you do not know your note names well, you can mentally "say" them in your head to aid in memorization. Then finally, put both pitch and rhythm together to complete the piece. You may have to slow down in order to keep your tempo at this point, but remember, slow and correct is better than fast and wrong.
Most new skills will require a lot of repetition in order to be mastered. Learn to practice in two ways. For new concepts, you should do shorter concentrated practice. For instance, I tell my students when learning new patterns, to first, practice the pattern for eighteen minutes, slowly, so that they make no mistakes. Then take a minimum five minute break, making sure to get away from the instrument, to allow what they did to sink in. Then, come back and resume practice and review.
Physical skills on the other hand, can be repeated as much and for as long as you want. Here, there is no mental learning involved, but rather mastery on a physical level of a pattern, for example, a scale, that has already been learned. It is important to make this distinction. Often students mix these two up and end up frustrating themselves by too much practice of a new concept that still has to learned.
Have Realistic Goals
When you sit down to practice, have clear, realistic goals as to what you want to accomplish that day. Many students go into their practice session with no goals at all, no clear idea what they want to accomplish, or far too much to try and do in one practice session. A good example that I remember, was sitting down with this big pile of books, thinking that I was going to get to all of them in one practice session, and then burning out on too much material. The point is to set realistic goals for the time that you have to practice, so that you leave your practice session feeling that you got something accomplished, rather than feeling frustrated.
These are just a few guidelines to help you get the most out your practice and to help you understand how to approach practicing. In the end you may come up with different approaches that work for you, as everyone learns in different ways, but hopefully this will help get you on your own path to successful practice, and avoid a lot of frustration.