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How Not to Practice

"Every day I practice one hour more than the day before." 

This is what my soon-to-be best friend told me upon meeting her at orientation for music school.  I was shocked, because as we know, time is limited and there are only 24 hours a day.  Plus she was still finishing up high school - which takes up 7ish of those 24 potential practice hours.

After hearing what my competition would be like in college I was dismayed at my own 30 mins or so of practicing and was determined to practice more and harder.

That being said, I completely burnt myself out on music in school - trying to practice 8-10 hours a day. My love of playing was gone.  My progress was meek and I was questioning my musical path entirely.

After college,  my desire for playing came back, but it was creeping back not through classical music, but through improvisation, composition and learning fiddle music and styles from around the world.  I took what I learned and started writing music with my cellist partner as the Wires String Duo.   Music was back on track.

All this to say, after many years of practicing badly I've learned how to practice well.  Here are my practice tips for adult learners:

  • Practice days are like hair days.  Sometimes you feel like you sound great and other times there's nothing you can do to untangle the notes and sounds coming out of your instrument.  Getting through the rough days are just as important as the good sounding days.
  •  I recommend practicing first thing in the morning.  I have a motto: Music First.  Before I get dressed, before I have coffee and while the sun is just coming out I play my violin for a few minutes.  There is something magical about this time of the day.  I can't explain it, but perhaps you've felt that too.  Add music to a sunrise and you're setting yourself up for a good day.
  • If you can practice right before bed, that's another great time to spend a few minutes playing.  There are all sorts of studies that show that sleep helps with the learning process.  I find that small practice sessions at the ends of the day do wonders for learning new techniques.  
  • Narrow it down.  Many people play a tune a few times and then move on to another tune to play a few times and then the next and so on.  This is perfectly fine, but if you want to get better at a tune find the one or two small sections that slow you down and practice them 7-10 times each.  If you can narrow it down to 2-3 notes, even better!
  • It's not about the quantity of practice, rather the quality.  Make your practice into a ritual that you enjoy.  That's the whole point, after all.  And, if you miss a day or a week just get back on it.  The skill is not to practice every day, but to get back on when you've fallen off.

Hope that helps! 

Oh, and my friend from high school.  She got up to 11 hours a day by not sleeping.  Needless to say, she ended up choosing a different career path.


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