The beginning of the year is the best time for students to set up a practice routine. A solid routine from the get-go will see you master the basics so that the rest of the year goes without a hitch. But as the year goes on, continue to evaluate if your routine is working for you, and change it up when you want to!
A good practice routine varies from person to person, meeting the needs of your own personality and your own schedule. The general recommendation from most teachers is to practice for short periods of time every day, and that works for many people. But some people keep very busy schedules, and only have time to practice a few days a week. And other people (like myself) like to get very focused and practice in large chunks of time less frequently.
The big thing to avoid is a practice routine that is so rigid that it creates guilt whenever you miss a day – I want you to practice because you love it, not because you ‘have to’! So keep flexible. If you miss a day, don’t worry about it. (But try not to miss a whole week.) Are you going on vacation with the family? You don’t have to ‘make up’ practice time – enjoy your time off without stress!
As we progress through the year, we’ll have periods with short, easy practice assignments and periods with longer or more difficult practice assignments. As such, I emphasize practice quality over practice quantity – 15 minutes of focused time will see more accomplished than an hour of puttering around. If you can get the practice assignment done in 5 minutes, do it! And then you can continue to practice what you want to practice.
What do you practice in a practice session?
What should a practice session look like? Well, that depends on what our goals are at any given time. Typically, a practice session will have 2-3 parts. I recommend the following order, but it’s YOUR practice session – you can decide!
Technique – getting better at the fundamentals so we can become better at our instrument in general; this also warms up your mind & muscles so the rest of the practice session goes better
Literature – music we’ll be performing at a concert, etudes assigned in class, or the next Samurai belt
Fun – pick something to play that’s fun, and is just for YOU.
Maybe it’s a song you want to learn that we’re not playing in class.
Maybe it’s something you’ve already learned, and you want to ‘perform’ it for yourself.
Maybe there’s a melody in your head, and you want to figure out the notes and write your own song.
Maybe you’ve found a groovy Guitar Band loop and want to improvise over it.
A focused environment
Have you ever experienced a time where you were so ‘into’ something that hours passed by in the blink of an eye? A time when something captured your attention and consumed your imagination, without any effort at all, and when you finished you were a little tired but somehow invigorated as well?
If you have, you’ve experienced a state of “Flow”. That’s what playing music is like for me, and I want it to be what playing music is like for you, too! The cool thing about Flow is that you can create the conditions for it. How? Well, you want a focused environment within which to practice - a quiet room all by yourself, with nothing to distract you. You want a clear picture of what you’re working towards; imagine what you’ll sound like when you’ve mastered what you’re working on, and aim towards making your actual sounds match that picture.
Also, use your time efficiently. When something isn’t working, take a bit to figure out why, what needs to be changed, and then jump right back in. Is there a lick that’s hard to play? Play just the hard part, over and over, starting slow and speeding up gradually until it’s easy. Or start with the last note – you can play one note in tempo, even if it’s fast! Then add the note before it, and when you can play those two with perfect sound, add the note before those. If you spend most of your practice session playing and eliminate the dead time in between, you’ll be amazed at how fast you get good.
Sample practice schedules for different personalities
Schedule A – the structured routine
Monday 15 minutes
Tuesday 15 minutes
Wednesday 15 minutes
Thursday 15 minutes
Friday 15 minutes
Saturday 15 minutes
Schedule B – the Flow is Strong
Tuesday 30 minutes
Saturday 1 hour
Schedule C – I heart tv!
Monday 2 hours every day! (but only during commercial breaks, so like maybe 20 minutes, really)
Schedule D – the concertmaster (I can’t get enough MUSIC!)
Monday 1 hour
Wednesday 2 hours
Friday 1 hour
Saturday 2 hours
Sunday 1 hour