April 15th, 2010

3 Keys to Effective Practice

By Eric

1. Create your own space

As a musician, time spent working in the practice room is an important part of everyday in which you work to maintain or, better yet, improve musicianship and technique. When you practice you need to find an environment that is the most productive for you. Ideally, finding a place to shed where no one can hear you is the best; a place where you can concentrate on the areas of your playing that need the most work and not be afraid to sound bad or  self conscious about who is listening to you. This is not always easy to achieve though, especially in music college practice rooms and after seeing practice rooms in various colleges,  it seems like the same familiar scenario is happening for music majors everywhere…

After twenty minutes of searching for an open practice room, you finally find a tiny room with an out of tune piano. In the room next to you a tenor player is continuously playing the same three licks over Giant Steps as fast as possible and in the room on the other side of you, the lead trumpet player in the big band is trying to hit the highest note he can play, as loud as he can possibly play it. From somewhere at the end of the hall, for some reason you can hear a rock band rehearsing, even though the last time you checked there was no degree for rock bands at your school. Meanwhile, as you are absorbing all of this, people are walking by in the hallway every five seconds to stare into the window of your practice room! Does this sound like an ideal environment to engage in focused work on your instrument?

In situations like music school practice rooms where everyone can hear each other, beside the noisy distractions, the greatest barrier to effective practice is being self conscious about how you sound and who can hear you. This type of thinking can immensely affect the way you practice and what you practice. For example, if we know other players can hear us, we tend to only play the things we can play well and avoid the areas that we don’t sound so good on. In doing this, no progress is being made. We become self conscious of what we sound like and what we choose to practice, when instead we should focus on what needs improvement and ignore what other people think. Do yourself a favor by finding a space where you can eliminate outside distractions and truly work on improving in areas that suffer.

2. Approach Practicing with a Focused and Confident Attitude

Much of the effectiveness of time spent in the practice room is directly related to your mental approach to the task at hand. Strive to have a clear and focused mind as you start your session and concentrate on every detail of what you are playing. It quickly becomes apparent that when you focus on each aspect of every etude, pattern or transcription etc., you will get more accomplished in less time. If you are a horn player, focus on the details of how you are breathing, what your air is doing when you attack the note, how you are articulating each note, fingering each note, sustaining a full sound, etc.

When you do an exercise in this manner, you will achieve a zen like state in which your mind is completely focused on the task at hand and you will be able to absorb more information that will transfer directly to your performance.  Not to mention, practicing with your mind fully engaged will protect against developing bad habits.

The second aspect of the mental side of practice is starting every day with confidence in your own playing. We all have times where we are not happy with what we played or review performances in our head, judging ourselves negatively. Do not let these negative thoughts affect your focus in the practice room. Every time you pick up your horn or approach your instrument, have confidence in your abilities and your potential to improve. Never allow past performances and experiences to negatively alter your mindset. When you approach practice this way, you are setting yourself up to accomplish a great deal more.

3. Go In With a Plan

How many times have you gone into the practice room ready to get some work done and then found yourself playing along with records or play a longs for the entire time? Although this is fun and enables you to be creative, no specific goals are being accomplished and areas that need the most work in your playing are being ignored. Even with the best intentions, it is easy to get side tracked when you are in the practice room so having an agenda before you start will ensure that you will cover everything that you need to.

Start with a routine that you do everyday that covers the fundamentals in your playing. As a jazz musician you not only need to focus on improving the technique of your instrument, but also on mastering the melodic and harmonic aspects of music. Everyday be sure to focus on the fundamentals of musicianship such as time, technique, articulation, theory, sound, and ear training. All of these aspects can be combined in a routine that can be changed each week to focus on different keys or patterns etc. that you think need work.

The next step is to set goals for yourself that are specific, both short term and long term. Ask yourself what you want to accomplish on your instrument and what areas in your technique or soloing need the most improvement. Maybe you want to learn that Coltrane solo that you’ve always liked, or maybe you want to memorize the tunes for next week’s gig. Maybe some of your goals won’t be accomplished in the space of a week and will take more time, like working on the upper register of your horn, playing odd meters or articulations at fast tempos, or playing solos with longer lines. Write these goals down and make sure to work on these specific ideas at some point every time you are in the practice room.

As you get busier and it is more difficult to find long blocks of time to practice, having a specific goal to work on during a practice session becomes even more important. Say you only have 30 minutes before your class or next obligation. Find one task and focus on it intently for the thirty minutes you have. For example you might learn a melody to a tune  or work out a pattern in all twelve keys and in this short time period a lot can be accomplished if you are really focused. Remember, especially in practicing, quality focused time is much more productive than hours spent playing aimlessly.

Staying Motivated

Following the three points above will get you on the right track to using your practice time more effectively, but keep in mind that even with great dedication it is easy to get burned-out in the practice room. As jazz musicians, we think about music and playing practically all day, but sometimes the motivation is lacking to really get the work done that we need to. The solution is to find situations that motivate you and put yourself in them.

One great way to do this is to go hear your favorite musicians perform in live settings. Many times this is a very positive way to get motivated and get inspiration for ideas.  Another is to find situations where you are playing with people that challenge you. Find musicians that are at a higher level than you or try playing in a more competitive environment. This is one of the benefits of going to a good jazz school, finding players that are also inspired and motivated and feeding of their energy and ideas. Lastly, find an area with a great music scene or take lessons from a player that you admire.

The most motivating situations, though, are the ones that are frustrating or painful. Think of the times when you played and couldn’t make anything happen over the changes, or the tempo was way too fast, or at a session everyone knew a simple tune except you, or someone called a tune in an unfamiliar key. These experiences motivate me to practice the most. In these cases, though, always remember to gain the positive side of the experiences, the need and desire to get better and the self-motivating force.

Remember, since you are already spending a lot of time shedding, you might as well be using it in the most efficient way possible so you can have time to have a life too! So with a little dedication, discipline, and some small changes to your practice habits, you can make a huge difference in your playing in a very short time, which is what we’re all after.