10 Things I've Learned About Practicing
1. Just do it.
There will always be dishes to wash, laundry to fold (although maybe not if you decide to adopt my sister-in-law's brilliant laundry system!), and tv to watch. If you're old enough to drink, pour some wine, sit down, and get started. It's the most important step (getting started that is, not drinking). If you're not old enough to drink, you're also young enough to be able to get away with eating whatever in this world you want with almost no consequences, so go ahead and enjoy that, and then get out your instrument and get started!
2. Have a plan.
You can't expect your fingers to know what to do. You've got to tell them. I'm ashamed to admit the number of times I've been sitting with my instrument in hand and realized I'm staring blankly at my fingers as if it's their job to spontaneously go to town on some hot solos. Sometimes they do, but it's unpredictable at best and certainly no way to make consistent progress. The best thing to do is to have a routine - some warmups, some review, some new material. I have found I am most inspired when I am working on a specific piece. I like that it's all mapped out for me, and all I have to do is follow along to the end. It's like working on a puzzle; the edge piece are slow going, and the snow and sky bits take forever, but once you get to the sleigh and the skaters it practically puts itself together. This is true whether you're reading or learning by ear.
3. Read and learn by ear.
Both of these skills are equally important, and practicing them both will double your repertoire. When you read, you are free to focus on technique and execution as well as your actual reading skills.
If your reading skills are less than stellar (or kind of lazy, like mine) work on simple, repetitive pieces. Wohlfart exercises for violin are great for reading practice and scale work. Bach is always worth it, and pieces range in difficulty from intermediate to mind-numbing. If rhythm is tricky for you, count out a section before you attempt to play it.
Learning by ear forces you to train your...ear! You learn to hear music in terms of where it takes place on your instrument. You take in a phrase, you picture how it is played, you try to play it. You swear a little, then you listen again and try again. Listening has to be ACTIVE, not passive. This is an essential skill, especially if you have aspirations toward composing or improvising. Eventually, when you hear music, you won't be able to help playing along, on your pencil, your keyboard, or in your mind. You'll start listening for the nuances in fingerings and picking (or bowing). Memorization is obviously key to learning by ear, and the more you do it, the quicker it will happen.
4. Listen to music, of all types and varieties, as often as possible.
When you're on the treadmill, when you're having your afternoon snack, when you're in the car, when you're making dinner. Input = output!
If you're not sure what to work on, copy someone whose playing you admire. Learn a solo, an intro, a lick, a tune, whatever. This builds your dexterity, hones your skills of execution, and expands your vocabulary. My friends and I used to say you start by playing what your favorite musicians play. Then you play what you think they would play. Then, eventually, you play what you would want them to hear YOU play. But first you have to learn that G run or that bowing pattern or that riff that you wish you'd invented.
6. Try to minimize the resistance barrier.
Have your instruments handy, within easy reach. Set up a music stand in the living room. Try to pick a time of day to practice when you're unlikely to be interrupted (insert hollow laughter. I've been interrupted at least 17 times while writing this). If you need new strings, let this be the day that you go get em! That last part was for me. I need new strings in the most embarrassing way. The point is, if you have to move heaven and earth every single time you try to practice, you won't do it very consistently. Try to be efficient and move heaven earth only once, then refer to tip #1.
7. Don't make the same mistakes again and again.
Repeating mistakes only reinforces them. If you find that you are consistently bungling a certain part of a song, stop for a second. Isolate the trouble spot, slow it down, work it out, then gradually speed it up. Only then should you re-insert it and try to play it in context. I always tell my students that it's much more important to play something consistently at a slow, even tempo than to play a few phrases of a song at breakneck speed and the rest of it at half speed. Nobody likes whiplash.
8. Honestly evaluate your strengths and weaknesses.
If you have a recording device of any kind, record your playing and have a listen. Listen for intonation, tone, timing, execution, etc. If you're unhappy with one of these areas, don't beat yourself up. Date the recording and walk away. If your timing is an issue, try playing with a metronome, or with records, or other people, or preferably all three. If your intonation is giving you trouble, practice scales, exercises, and above all, listen! If your execution is sloppy, slow everything down. Work on getting your left and right hand perfectly in sync. Open your left hand as if you're holding a ball in the palm, then bring your fingers down on the strings. (This is true for all stringed instruments. If your hand is tight and collapsed, your execution will be poor.) Then in a month, record the same piece again. Then compare the two. Progress, I guarantee it!
9. Use technology.
Digital technology was not available when I was a kid. If I wanted to learn a song by ear, I had a special tape deck, the Marantz, that played tapes at half speed. And HALF PITCH. It would have been awesome if I was trying to learn fiddle tunes on the double bass. And now there's this little app called Anytune that will import an Mp3 file and go ahead and play it in tune at half speed. How can such a thing be? This is just one of the myriad tools I only ever dreamt of when I was a kid riding home from my lessons with a brain full of new songs I was just sure I'd forget before I got there.
10. Practicing is like watering a plant.
You just have to do little every day. You don't have to reinvent your instrument. Just play a little something that you didn't know how to play before. No pressure, no obligations. Just a little water, a little exercise, and a lot of fun.
Happy practicing everyone! Best of luck to you, and best of luck to me at practicing what I preach!