Practicing at Home
Excellence as Habit
How many times per week should my student musician practice at home when away from class? Our answer is zero.
How long should I make my student musician practice? Our answer is again zero.
Should I supervise my student’s in-home practice to make sure they play their scales and practice the repertoire for next week? The answer is only if they request such help; don’t make practice at home a bothersome chore, drudgery, or something like a dental appointment. That only discourages practice.
Wait a minute, are we saying that students shouldn’t practice at all? Well no, not exactly. Students should practice between rehearsals. It’s the only way to learn all this music in time for the concert, but students should practice in the right way.
The wrong way to practice is for time. The right way to practice is for results! When getting set up to practice, have a goal in mind not a time requirement. A goal might be to learn a new scale and play it without looking. Another worthwhile goal might be to correct a mistake in a tricky or fast passage. Then, set about achieving that single goal. If it takes a student 90 minutes to achieve that goal, then that is what it took, and the student returns to class playing better than they did before. If it only takes 9 minutes to achieve that particular goal, then great! Spend the next 81 minutes eating ice-cream as a reward. Afterward perhaps, try mastering another goal. The point is that your time is too valuable to just play for the clock, filling up space-time in some arbitrary, allotted requisite. Instead, be efficient, and practice with the intent of bettering your skills one step at a time.
When should we practice? Ideally, we would play our instruments (or sing with our voices) everyday to keep our muscles in shape and our fine, motor skills honed; however, we should only practice because we want to play better, not because we feel guilty that we must practice. If we’re worn-out and tired from a long day of soccer, wait ‘till we’ve rested to practice or find another day. Practicing will become something looked forward to, anticipated with delight, and fun!
There are lots of reasons as to why a musician would want to practice: it’s enjoyable, it’s stress relieving, and it could be an opportunity for alone time. More importantly though, practice makes us better, and the better we are, the more fun it is! The better we are as a musical team, all-together, the more complex, more sophisticated, and the more rewarding music we get to play. Every voice in the ensemble is important. We count on each other to learn, sing, and play our parts to the best of our abilities. That synergistic effort produces "all the feels" at performance time that makes our audiences say “wow”!
To encourage us to play and practice more, keep your instrument assembled and ready to go at home and not stored in its case. Put the instrument on its stand; so that whenever the mood strikes, it can be picked up and played. Even if the play time is only a short 5 minutes before being put back down, we'll benefit! Instruments “on display” get played more often. Granted, this can be harder to do on a woodwind that needs a moistened reed to vibrate properly. Consider using a synthetic reed that does not require water so that the spur of the moment, at home practice can occur.
Ok, what should we practice? Practice whatever inspires, motivates, interests, or challenges us in the moment! Just play it to the best of our ability with all the musicality, dynamics, and great tone possible. Here are three things to practice:
1. Practice stuff we know, play favorites, and sing stuff that’s really cool. Make it sound awesome! Pay attention to phrasing, look for places to make it dynamic, and perform with great expression. Try adding vibrato in certain places. See what happens if the articulations are enhanced or subdued in spots. Have fun!
2. Practice for good tone. On a brass instrument, practice lip slurs. On a woodwind, blow overtones. Practice blowing long tones too, winds. Try long, vibrato bowings on strings. Check your placement on the drumhead, try adjusting your stick height, and pull the sound out of the drum. Try shifting between the head voice and the chest voice to find the most pleasing blend.
3. Practice techniques. Play scales and interval exercises slow at first and then faster. Sight-read new material by playing or singing through a new book of songs or etudes. Pick-out difficult and tricky passages to analyze and master. Start slow, then build-up to performance tempo.
If we only have a small amount of time available to sing or play (say 15 minutes before leaving for volleyball), then pick just one area out of the three. If we’ve got a whole afternoon available to us, play a few minutes in each of the topical areas.
Do we need to keep practice logs? Keep a log only if desired; NHME won’t ask to see them. Some musicians do find that keeping records of what they’ve worked on, what they’ve accomplished, and of what they need to do, helpful in organizing their practice times.
Here is what we should not practice: Do not practice mistakes. Do not reinforce or cement bad habits and errors in the music by playing them wrong over and over again. If we can’t get it right just yet, take a break, play something else for awhile, and then come back at it. In most cases, it takes playing or singing something correctly ten times to overcome doing something incorrectly once. If we find that we’ve gotten accustomed to playing something wrong, consider this: an amateur musician will practice ‘till they get it right; a professional will play ‘till they can’t get it wrong.
Remember: home practice is where we learn our parts; rehearsals are for learning everyone else's parts (and how our part fits in).
Yes, the old adage holds true; practice makes perfect. The right kind of practice, however, makes Excellence!
The world’s foremost cellist, Pablo Casals, was asked when he was 83 why he continued to practice four and five hours a day. Casals answered, “Because I think I am making progress.”