A Daily Practice Routine

 The first step in developing a practice regimen is to define the word “practice”! Practicing is the act of technically and musically polishing music to a level appropriate for public performance – a level you can be proud of. This performance can take place in front of your teacher, an audition panel, a jury, a master class, or an entire audience. Practicing is a skill that is developed over time; a skill that enables you to detect your problems through careful concentration and listening, and to efficiently solve those problems. Practicing is, and should be, hard work! For this reason, it is necessary to approach the task with thought, planning, and constant experimentation to see what is effective for you. Remember, simply repeating mistakes over and over until it is “time to stop” is not practicing!

I still use most of the practice techniques that I devised for myself when I started as a freshman music major in college. That’s when I began to really think about a strategy, and systematize my daily routine. Here are some tips that I think will help you:

  1.  First of all, you and I will decide on how many hours of practice you are going to attempt each day. A lot depends on your degree program, the number of credit hours for which you have registered, and what you personally want to accomplish! But I will go out on a limb here, and say that if you are planning to be a performance major, three or four hours (probably closer to four) is a minimum.
  2. Sit down with your entire schedule and actually plan and block out practice times. Warning: if you don’t do this, other things will fill up the time, and you probably won’t meet your goal. After a week or two you may find out that some times work better than others in terms of your concentration level, but at least give yourself something to start with. Then you can later make adjustments to fill your needs.
  3. Split up your practice times throughout the day. Don’t try to do all four hours at once; it won’t work. However, if you have to practice, for example, two hours consecutively, take a break of ten or fifteen minutes between sessions.
  4. Expand your days if you are having trouble finding practice time, even with advance planning. In other words, if you are a “morning person”, get out of bed in time to grab an hour of practice before your first class. If you function well in the evening hours, stay up a little late. Yes, rest is very important, but you also have to make the most of your college years.
  5. Before you even remove your instrument from its case, take a moment to flex your fingers and stretch out your arm muscles. Invent your own physical warm-ups. This can help to avoid muscle injury.
  6. Divide your practice segments equally among scales, etudes, and repertoire selections (concertos, sonatas, orchestral music, etc.) I find scales the perfect way to start each day, but you should vary the order of the other components.
  7. When working on etudes and repertoire, don’t ALWAYS begin EVERY practice session at the BEGINNING of the piece. Your peak concentration is usually when you first begin to practice, so you want to distribute that peak concentration over different sections of a piece of music, not just the first page!
  8. I cannot stress enough the importance of listening to a variety of professionally recorded performances of your repertoire, FOLLOWING THE SCORE as you listen. This is particularly helpful before you even begin to attempt to play the music yourself.
  9. Next, decide how YOU want the piece of music to sound – how to make it uniquely your interpretation. I find that a great deal of experimentation with FINGERINGS, TONE COLOR as it relates to those fingerings, and BOWINGS in the initial stages of learning goes a long way toward accomplishing this.
  10. Solve the basic technical problems first. The most sensitive musical interpretation you can come up with will be lost if you do not articulate accurately, play in tune, and produce a beautiful sound. For difficult, fast passages, play slowly at first, gradually increasing tempo. The METRONOME can be your best practice buddy.
  11. Invent “mini etudes” to help you solve technical problems you encounter in your music. I love the “three times rule”: after learning a tough passage, if you can play it three times in a row, you can probably go on. For now. But you might have to repeat the process over a period of days. Don’t give up, because eventually it will stick!
  12. Do not think that you can skip two or three practice days in a row, then “make up the time” with marathon sessions over the next few days. It doesn’t work. Practicing needs to be a consistent, daily process. And by the way, one of the best times of the week to practice is shortly after your lesson! On that day your teacher’s suggestions are fresh in your mind.
  13. Don’t be discouraged if you have bad practice days, or even a bad practice week. It’s normal. A well-planned, consistent regimen will reward you greatly over time, and those good habits will stay with you for the rest of your life.