All practice is not created equal. And GREAT practice leads to terrific performances.
I remember when I was a young harpist, my mother would set the kitchen timer to make sure I did the amount of practice my teacher required each day. At that age, it couldn’t have been very long – maybe 20 minutes or a half hour – but often it seemed like hours before the timer bell would ring and I would be free. I remember clearly when I was a teenager and discovered there was a better way to practice, a way that was not only more effective but more enjoyable too.
And now, after many years of performing and teaching, I like to help my students understand 5 basic steps that will make their practice sessions interesting and productive. These skills form the acronym G-R-E-A-T, and they are the basis for GREAT practice habits.
1. Goal-setting for each practice session. It is important to have a practice goal. Why? Because if you don’t know where you want to go, you won’t get there. It’s the roadmap for your practice. And there are three types of goals: long-term, weekly and daily. The long-term goals may be thing like a recital date or any kind of performance. Think about how much better or harder you practice when a recital date gets close, and you’ll see why it’s important to have these goals always in front of you.
But the other kinds of goals are equally important. The weekly goal may be what your teacher wanted you to accomplish before your next lesson or just an intermediate step you set for yourself in your learning. The daily goal is the result you want from your daily practice, and it’s critical to keeping you on track toward your longer term goals.
2. Repetition. We’ve all heard from our teachers that doing something once is not really practicing, and that ten or twenty or a hundred times is the only way to truly know something. Guess what – our teachers were right! There are many different strategies for making repetition extra effective, but the principle remains the same. Do it again! And doing it again takes –
3. Energy. Energy is crucial to your success because if you don’t practice with energy, your practice won’t do you much good. Practicing with energy doesn’t mean just playing loud or fast. What this means is to be your own teacher, to not just go through the motions of playing something a hundred times, but to really try to put your whole self into what you are doing, always keeping your goals in mind. Practicing with energy is more efficient. That means better results in less time.
4. Awareness. You must be aware of what you’re doing. Awareness is paying attention to all those little things that you know you should be watching as your practice: the notes, the rhythm, the dynamics, your technique, your tone, in short, all the things your teacher would notice. Save yourself time and hassle and notice them before your teacher does. If you practice with awareness, you will experience something you may never have experienced before: a really terrific lesson!
5. Techniques. There are many practice techniques that you can use to help you over rough spots, or through technically challenging spots. Many of these you know already, like playing hands separately, or tapping a rhythm, or ways for speeding up passages that are difficult. There are dozens more, and your teacher can suggest some to help with any specific difficulties. Be sure to ask!
Good practice habits help you learn music faster, perform better, learn more repertoire and have better lessons. Imagine what GREAT practice habits could do!