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Practice Guidance

Suggestions for students just starting out in music:

  • Find your own corner.  Entering a special practice area, whether it's a certain room or just a corner of the living room, will help prepare you mentally for this very particular kind of work. Mindful intention is everything, and having the ritual of going to the same place every time can help set that intention
  • Have a goal for each practice session before you start playing.  Before you start, think: What do I want to accomplish today? If you're not sure what you need to focus on, ask your teacher for a few concrete goals to work toward before the next lesson — and write them down so that you can refer to them during your practice sessions. It helps!
  • Pencil? The simple advice is to keep a pencil sharpener and a very clean eraser within arm's reach, along with a pencil to mark up your music. Simple, right? But those little things are easy to forget, and if you have to go searching for them, add up to a big waste of time.
  • Map a practice session out like a workout. Lots of musicians start with a pretty common scenario of warming up  with scales. It helps to loosen up the  muscles and get the brain thinking about technique. Then move on to the "working" part where you analyze and try to solve problems; then cool down by improvising or revisiting some music you already know well.
  • Make the most of the time you have. Practice smarter, not necessarily longer. You'll probably accomplish a whole lot more in a short amount of time if you have a very focused objective — and science tells us that we have a limited amount of willpower to draw upon anyway.  Say you are having trouble with two very tricky measures. Set your timer for a short period (like five or 10 minutes), and then work just on one problem in as many ways as you can — break it down into even smaller and more manageable bits, go super slow, try to play the passage backwards, change the rhythm, whatever. If that trouble spot is still giving you PROBLEMA, then make yourself a mental note to come back to that section again tomorrow. Chances are it will be a  way easier the next time around.
  • Always start practicing from a different segments of music. It is easier and convenient to start the piece at the first bar, but you may wind up wasting the limited time and energy you have. (Also, it leads to performances that start strong and then, well, wilt.)
  • Challenge yourself — physically. Especially if you're trying to wrestle down an element that you find problematic, scientific researchers say that if you add a physical challenge to the difficult task, such as trying to play that part while standing on one leg or while walking, your brain is likely to start carving out new neural pathways — and the original task will be easier when you return to just doing that.
  • Practice away from your instrument. Many musicians use visualization in the same way that athletes do: They run through their music without touching their instruments. Try bringing your music along with you (either on paper or a mobile device) when you know you'll have some downtime, such as during a car or train ride, and read through the piece silently.
  • Reward hard work — in positive ways — to help your brain automate good habits. That sounds like out-and-out bribery, but again, science