We all know the famous phrase "practice makes perfect." I'm not sure I quiet agree with that - practise, in any discipline, is the art of repetition to deepen understanding, improve accuracy and gain confidence. But what happens if we repeat something over and over without properly taking care of errors or truly focusing on the task in hand? We certainly don't end up with perfection. I rather prefer "practice makes permanent" - whatever we do in our private practice is going to stick, and once a musical passage or technical exercise is learned in a certain way, it's mighty tough to unlearn! That's why it's vitally important to practice properly. These are my top tips for optimising home practice, ensuring effective learning with speedy and enjoyable results.
1. Use a suitable practice space
The practice room should feels spacious, comfortable and quiet, with enough light and no distractions - it's a phone/tablet/TV free zone. Please always use a music stand - playing from music flat on desks/dressers or propped up on books or cushions makes it more difficult to read and doesn't encourage good posture and technique. Older children and teens should practice alone so as to encourage independent learning, analytical thinking and self assessment, but it's a good idea for parents to show interest and pop in at the end of the session to ask for a demo or a short performance.
2. Set goals
Effective learning is all about setting and meeting realistic and achievable goals. We teachers help students set their long and medium term goals, but we're not around at home to set the short term daily goals. A teacher is only with the student for 30mins to 1 hour per week, max. The rest, and the majority, of the time - students and parents are own their own; the student (or parent of a young learner) is the home teacher. Older students (parents of younger students can help here) should step up into the role of teacher and take responsibility for their own learning at home. Set some targets before practice, this will help focus the session and ensure students take responsibility for their own learning. Use a practice diary - it's impossible to remember everything that happens in each lesson - especially as the lesson day moves further and further away. Use the notes and tips your teacher has jotted down to help guide your practice, and jot down and notes, suggestions, ideas or requests that pop into your head during the practice session. It might also be helpful for you to use a practice chart to monitor the scope and regularity of your practice.
3. Get into the groove
Stick to a routine. Practice can broadly be divided into 4 sections, try and cover all of these each day:
a. warm up - practice is physically demanding and those muscles need to be eased in to the hard work.
b. technical exercises - the bread and butter and of great instrumental technique.
c. repertoire - presumably the main reason for learning.
d. live performance - confidence and stage craft also takes practice.
e. something just for fun - the chocolate after eating your greens, a reward for completing those less than favourite tasks.
4. A little goes a long way
It's a truth universally acknowledged that panic practising and cramming a week's worth of work into the last half hour the night before the lesson is simply worthless, a half hour wasted. Practice is training muscle and mind to remember the best way to work and so repetition is vital to success. Therefore, little and often is the way forward - starting at 10mins a day for complete beginners through to at least an hour a day for advanced learners.
5. Variety is the spice of life
Essentially, practice is repetition, and repetition can become boring. We're only human, it's important to realise this and take preemptive measures to avoid the trap of lethargy. Find lots of different ways to practice the same thing - use a metronome; experiment with rhythm, dynamics, articulation and phrasing; begin in the middle, or at the end instead of the start; try and teach someone else what you are learning. Use your imagination!
Sometimes, practice is just cold, hard work. No matter what we try, it just seems impossibly hard and the light at the end of the tunnel seems to flicker and fade. At times like this, all we can do is knuckle down and accept the journey. Learning an instrument is a life long commitment and the learning journey will be full of ups and downs. It's important to realise the feelings of frustration for what they are and not be too defeatist about things; it always passes. To parents of young children, I'd say this - persevere through the tantrums and the dips, a child of 5 doesn't know if they still want music in their life at 25 - but you do. Anyway, I digress - my final piece of advice is that when push comes to shove and something is really very hard, the doctor's approach always works:
diagnose the issue (exactly where and what is wrong?), prescribe a cure (what is needed to make improvements?), and finally, come back for follow up appointments (the problem will require remedial care for the next few days/weeks/months).
I hope this helps!