“Practice puts brains in your muscles.”  Sam Snead (Hall of Fame golfer)

What advice can you think of when it comes to practice, musical or otherwise? The most famous bit is likely “practice makes perfect.” But who is perfect? Even though practice is essential for success, it’s difficult for almost everyone. World-renown cellist Yo Yo Ma has confessed that he doesn’t like to practice. He clarified saying he didn’t like the “idea of practicing”. However, once he started practicing he realized he liked it, and he could go on practicing for hours. Often practicing is viewed as a chore and not an enjoyment. However, there are many ways to get motivated to practice and to get the most out of your practice.

The more you practice and study, the better you are so I still practice and study all the time. Cyndi Lauper

What is practice?

Musically speaking, good practice is repeating something you want to play until you play it how you want to play it. Then you can perform it with confidence and creative freedom. Even great improvisers practice; they practice simple fundamental things that give them skill to improvise freely. But how do you get to that point? You need a practice method, a goal, and a time commitment.

“Practice without thought is blind. Thought without practice is empty.” 

– Kwame Nkrumah (First president of Ghana)

One of my teachers once said to me, “We don’t practice our instruments, we study them.” This study means listening and reading about the tradition of your instrument including its players, history, playing technique, function it performs in a group, and whatever other things enable you to connect to your instrument. For example, you can study by listening to three or four different versions of a piece you are trying to play.

On the other hand, study needs to be activated through practice. So, it would be great to read about playing the violin or piano for two hours a day; it might increase your knowledge, motivation, and ideas, but it likely won’t make your playing skill improve unless you practice doing what you’ve read about.

There is a trap of practicing a certain amount of time and progressing very little. For instance, you play the right notes, but don’t pay attention to different accents and expressions that give those notes character and life. You find yourself putting in time playing pieces and doing drills but not progressing; it’s frustrating. Here’s where a teacher, colleague, or even recording yourself could provide feedback to get more results from your practice time. Practically, this all means being aware that practice should have attention, focus, and a goal. The best kind of practice is deliberate and intentional skill building.

How much should I practice?

It's not necessarily the amount of time you spend at practice that counts; it's what you put into the practice. Eric Lindros

People often ask how much they should practice. There isn’t a straightforward answer or rule, but there are a lot of philosophies and general guidelines. Theories start anywhere from fifteen minutes per day and go upwards to several hours. It all depends on your goals. What are you practicing for? How far do you want to progress? What do you want to be able to play, and with whom, and for whom? The crucial thing is to just do it and make it regular.

Here is my favourite tip from a former teacher: practice new and difficult things in twenty minute spurts. Then take a break. Then repeat. With this method your brain won’t get tired, you can maintain perspective on what you are trying to accomplish, and you won’t get easily frustrated. It’s like taking small bites of your food. For another example, it’s like remembering big groups of numbers in manageable chunks instead of trying to remember the complete package all at once. Whatever the case, like Yo Yo Ma, you will find the more regularly you practice, the more you will gain mental, emotional, and physical strength to continue. Practice won’t seem like a big chore when you see the results.

How should I practice?

Below is common (not new) advice distilled from numerous sources including teachers, colleagues, and my own experience. For more, check out this short article by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

If I don’t practice for a day, I know it. If I don’t practice for two days, the critics know it. And if I don’t practice for three days, the public knows it. Louis Armstrong

  1. Make it regular: Practice habits can be formed with discipline. Please, don’t wait until you feel like practicing – that might not be a regular thing (at least when you are first forming the habit). Choose a time when distractions are minimal.
  2. Make it focussed: Set goals (which technique? which pieces?) Understand mistakes and how to fix them. Don’t spread yourself too thin by trying to practice too much in a short time. 
  3. Try different strategies: Play with a metronome and play along with recordings. Record yourself and listen. Rehearse with other musicians.
  4. Be patient:  Spend time with your instrument. Practice slowly with determination but realize progressing takes time, so don’t give up. Learning curves for some things are steeper than others. Be happy with what you’ve learned.

Practice difficult things more: Don’t spend most of your practice session working on stuff you already know how to do.

I've always considered myself to be just average talent and what I have is a ridiculous insane obsessiveness for practice and preparation. Will Smith

There’s a lot of advice there. Hopefully some of it will be useful to help you reach your musical goals.