Eight Tips for Powerful Practice
Posted on 7th May, 2020
To encourage boys to get the most out of their musical instrument practice during lockdown, Ms Biddell, our Director of Music, has come up with eight helpful tips. She is delighted to hear from boys about how they are getting on – and no doubt that will be all the better for her useful advice below.
1. Find a good spot where you won’t be disturbed. Make sure that you’re comfortable, with your chair and stand at the right height, and have plenty of light. It’s probably useful to have a pencil and some water nearby too. (These are also good principles for when you have your virtual lessons.)
2. Aim to practise at the same time every day. Think carefully about what works for you and your family. You might like to practise in the mornings when you’re fresh, or you might like to fit practice in after virtual school, but whatever you do: the golden rule is little and often. Musicians are athletes, so when you’re playing your instrument, remember that you’re training your muscles.
3. Structure your session. The best way to do this is usually to start with scales, arpeggios and technical exercises before pieces, though please be guided by your teacher’s advice too. You need to warm up your hands, body and instrument in exactly the same way that you would before sport.
4. Have a goal. Beware the deadly sin of ‘just playing through’ – every musician’s nemesis! There is a world of difference between practice (finding the things you can’t do and tackling them) and playing through (casually playing pieces from start to finish without noticing mistakes). Do smart, targeted practice that lets you laser in on tricky corners, and it will save huge amounts of time in the long run. Remember: practising without fixing mistakes is actually practising to reinforce those mistakes.
5. Use clever tricks. The most obvious one would be to play hard sections slowly then increase the speed. Try using a metronome (there are lots of free ones online), or you might like to play difficult passages in dotted rhythms then ‘iron them out’ to the correct rhythm (it really does make them smoother). If your piece has two pages, start by practising page 2 before page 1, or if it’s one page long then practise the second half before you work on the first. So many performances start brilliantly then tail off as it’s obvious the later parts haven’t been practised as carefully!
6. Investigate the details. Which dynamics are marked in your piece, and where is it supposed to be at its loudest and softest? Are you breathing in the right place, are you following the bowing marks, are you using the right fingering or do you know when to tongue and slur? Keep your practice notes handy and use a pencil to mark your teacher’s ideas on the page to remind you.
7. Finish with something fun. Have a favourite piece that you really love to play? Do you enjoy improvising your own music? Perhaps you could serenade a family member, or make your way to the kitchen to perform to whoever’s making dinner. Whatever you do, finish on a high with something that’s enjoyable and relaxing too.
8. Listen to recordings. We’re currently living a very strange life in lockdown, but one of the great blessings still available to everyone is the internet. Whatever piece you are learning, there will be a recording of it somewhere online. Make sure you find a good one and see if you can get tips from listening to a brilliant performer… or you might even prefer to listen to several different performances and work out which one you like best. Don’t be afraid to be critical!