Music might be this magical language of the soul, but it can still be infuriating to practice, especially if you’re fairly new to the craft.
Many teachers will tell you they don’t teach students how to play; they teach students how to practice. Jeremy Denk writes that his teacher, “Sebők said many times that you don’t teach piano playing at lessons; you teach how to practice—the daily rite of discovery that is how learning really happens.” But the student still has to focus on adventure in the practice room and trying to find the best way to practice.
No one can tell you.
That’s frustrating; it really really is. But there are a few tips I can pass along that will hopefully help at least a little bit.
1. Spend time with your instrument every day.
This is a duh, but some of us still don’t do it. It’s better to do 15 minutes each day than four hours one day. We’ve all been guilty of this thinking at some point, so we’ll just get it out in the open.
More than this hard practicing, though, just let yourself be with your instrument. As Madeline Bruser writes in The Art of Practicing,
Practicing can proceed without a rigid plan. You don’t have to do things in the same order as yesterday or pick up where you left off in your last session. You don’t always have to start with the most difficult section or practice every tricky passage three or ten or fifty times in a row. Hidden under such rigid programming is the voice of creative intelligence. You can listen to that voice; you can follow it and see where it leads you.
2. Set small goals.
Goals are important. They give us something to look forward to, a challenge to conquer. But too many huge challenges burn us out. Finding that balance is a huge part of learning an instrument, and it can be incredibly frustrating on its own.
Instead of goals like, “I will learn two pages of this piece today,” be nicer to yourself and try something like “I will spend thirty minutes a day on this piece this week.”
Concert pianist and esteemed pedagogue, Dr. Josh Wright suggests a rotation of 3-4 pieces at a time. Don’t spend more than around a quarter of your practice sessions on technique; focus more on repertoire, as that’s how you “create momentum in your practice sessions.” You don’t have to play each repertoire piece every day. Sometimes a day off a piece is helpful! Just divide up the rest of your practice time by spending say twenty minutes on a piece.
Here’s a helpful video of Dr. Wright explaining how to divide up your sessions:
Is it too corny to say that you should also let “fun” be a goal?
3. Keep a practice journal.
A lot of teachers have their students keep a practice journal. Sometimes it’s used solely to write down assignments and track their completion.
Other teachers direct their students to write down daily goals and actual outcomes. This can be very helpful for the analytical types who love to see data and want to draw bar graphs of their goals.
I’m a lot less disciplined, but simply writing about how practicing that day made me feel, what images were conjured up in my head, maybe what colors were evoked by specific passages, anything I thought of while playing, I write down. Then when I go back later and am trying to recall a night when a piece felt especially powerful, I can see what memories made me feel that way.
It brings back the magic of creating music and reminds me that the goal is feeling and not perfection. Thus, less frustration!
4. Celebrate the little things.
Because we are taught to be critical of our sound, we tend to forget to get excited when we play correct fingerings at tempo for a tricky cadenza that was killing us. Celebrating is so important, and it will help you stay in a positive-growth mindset. And that’s where we all need to be.
Shoot for at least three things you can be excited about, and write them down in your practice journal or tell someone about them. Then, when you’re feeling down or angry during a session, you can skim back through that list of accomplishments.
5. Take a Break.
If you find yourself getting frustrated, and you’re beginning to pound out notes, it’s time to move on. You can get a sip of water, stare at the wall, close your eyes, just breathe. Stop thinking about the music for a second, listen to your breath, to the sound of the lights above you buzzing, to the doors in the hallway slamming open and shut, the violinist two doors down. Just be for a moment.
The human brain’s attention span is somewhere around twenty minutes, so don’t beat yourself up if you’ve been practicing for an hour straight, and your fingers suddenly forget what they’re doing. The professionals take water breaks too. Plus, hydration helps your brain work better too!
6. Remember why you’re practicing.
This halts me mid-practice more times than I’d like to admit. These doubts of my purpose in the world leave me wondering why I lock myself away in a practice room for hours a day when I could be doing fun things with friends or doing a job that’s less work for me.
We all feel this way, so the best thing to do is ask yourself again why you do it. This is an entire post on its own, but to sum it up, you can ask:
- Why did you start playing?
- How are you making the world a better place with your music right now?
- Who are you working hard for?
The classical music community on Tumblr jokes a lot about practicing including lots of tears, banging your head on the wall, or just lying on the practice room floor in the dark. Practice can be hard, but that’s not the end of it. Practice is also your time out of the spotlight when you can hone your magic.
You’re doing amazing things that so many others can’t even understand. Find something that can make you smile about that.
I have a few inspiring quotes above my piano that remind me why I’m torturing myself with practice. My favorite right now I mentioned previously, and I’ll put the picture here too because it just makes me happy.
All in all, take a step back when you need to. Breathe. Remember why you’re trying to make music in the first place. You’ll get there, and maybe you’ll even love practicing!
Book Review: The Art of Practicing by Madeline Bruser , Girl in Blue Music.
The Art of Practicing: A Guide to Making Music from the Heart, Madeline Bruser.
How to Divide Up Your PRACTICE Sessions, Dr. Josh Wright.
3 Questions to Ask When You Feel Pointless as a Musician, Girl in Blue Music.