Setting Yourself Up for a Good Practice Session
Let's face it, getting into a good practice routine is one of the hardest things we have to do to be successful musicians. Common problems we face are a lack of motivation, discouragement, and minimal progress. These things all self-perpetuate from a lack of structure in our practice methods or methods that don't work for our individual needs. Everyone has a different learning style and the same techniques don't work universally for every person. That's why it is so important to try different practice methods and see what works best for you.
Although there may not be a one-size-fits-all solution here, there are some tips I can share that work for me:
1. Eliminate distractions.
This has been crucial for me. I am able to have my most productive practice sessions when I do not have interruptions and I can just focus on what I'm doing. As hard as it may be, this means silencing your phone, turning off the tv and anything else that makes noise, and letting other members of your household know that you are going to be busy practicing for a while so they need to wait until you are done unless it is an emergency.
2. Think about what you would like to accomplish.
Having clear goals in mind can help give you a sense of direction in your practice session. What pieces do you need to work on today? What sections and measures are you struggling with? What do you need to do to smooth those sections out? These are the kinds of questions I often ask myself before practicing. For larger goals like learning a new piece, you can break it down into steps. For example, I would set a goal to learn the right hand of the first page of [new piece] today. You decide how big of a step is right for you, it may be the first four measure right hand only or sight reading through the entire piece hands together. The important thing here is finding what works for you and doing it.
3. Have your practice journal ready to jot down notes.
One of the most useful tools I have is a practice journal. Each day that I practice I jot down notes about what I worked on, what went well, what needs work, and what I can do to address trouble areas in my next practice session. This is a remarkably useful tool for tracking your progress too, which can help build your self esteem and motivate you to continue putting in the effort.
4. Have a metronome handy.
The metronome can be difficult to use because it keeps such precise rhythm but that is exactly why it is so useful! It can be used to help you increase your tempo, smooth out tricky rhythms, and even just bring an awareness to areas you need to work on. Often times, I find that I really struggle while using the metronome but, to my amazement, everything sounds so much better afterward! I use an app on my phone called Soundcorset, it's easy to use and does what I need it to do.
5. Go into it with a positive mindset.
Nothing will kill your practice session like a bad attitude. Before I begin practicing, I like to remind myself that the reason I practice is so that I can improve. If I already knew everything and could play perfectly without trying, there would be no purpose for practicing. It is up to you to cheer yourself on and generate the motivation to put in the effort needed to improve.
6. Be kind and patient with yourself.
It is easy to get discouraged and frustrated while practicing because you are pushing and challenging yourself. Cut yourself a break. Remind yourself that you are competent, that you are striving for progress not perfections, that it is okay if you make mistakes because that is the pathway to learning. Learning how to play the piano and developing your musical ability is a process. It is a marathon, not a sprint. So pace yourself and be kind along the way, keeping in mind that this is supposed to be an enjoyable experience.
7. Keep things fun and interesting.
Practicing needs to be taken seriously and requires self-discipline and commitment. But this doesn't mean that it should be boring or stressful. There are many ways to keep things enjoyable and still be productive. When I am learning a new piece and getting frustrated with it, I might take a break from it to play a piece I thoroughly enjoy playing or work on the musical expression of a piece. Another thing I like to do is allow myself some time to just play around on the keys and improvise. There are many other possibilities here; the key is to be having fun and getting out of your logical left brain to enjoy the freedom of your creative right brain.
8. End on a strong note.
Play something that you feel good about and enjoy playing to conclude your practice session. Mentally review the progress you have made in this practice session and give yourself praise for your effort. Find a way to reward yourself for your hard work and be proud of yourself. The more positive you feel leaving a practice session, the likelier it is that you will feel positive going into the next one.
I hope you find these tips helpful! They have saved my musical life time and time again.