Last night I gave a workshop to a local choral group. We did some fun exercises, including walking around in a big circle, waving our arms and counting really loud from deep in our bellies!
After I got home, I thought a bit about what we do when we sit down to practice. One reason I wrote Best Practice was that I realized many players and singers don’t have the faintest idea what to do when they allot time to “practice.”
Singers in a choral group and instrument players who take lessons have the advantage that they’re assigned music to work on. Without additional guidance, we can be forgiven for thinking that’s all there is to practicing: “Set aside some time and go over what you were given to do, again and again, until you get it right.” With that as a blueprint, it’s no wonder so many people dislike practicing!
Practicing can be a time of great joy, something we look forward to. It should be time that is so personally valuable that we push other things aside to make room for it. We can access that joy by incorporating elements into our practicing that make it special, unique, and our own.
What’s described below is just one way to set up your practice time. Think of it as a starting point. You can — and should — adjust this routine to fit you: your schedule, your affinities, and your lifestyle. The more you know about what you love to do and what works for you, the more you’ll come to love practicing.
A Practice Primer
Set aside an hour a day. If you can’t do that, then do what you can, but aim for an hour. There’s nothing magical about an hour. It’s just easy to measure. ABOVE ALL don’t feel bad about yourself (never!) if you can’t practice for a full hour, or at all.
Spend a few minutes warming up.* If you can’t think of any warmups, play/sing a few scales or arpeggios. The idea of warmups is to do something that is technically fairly easy for you, so you can draw your attention to the sound and the physicality of your playing. Warmups act as a kind of level-setting where you can ask: Where am I at today? Did I drink just the right amount of coffee? Is my arthritis bothering me? Is my A string a little buzzy? Wow, my new reed is really settling in!
Now play or sing something you love. Take it at a nice and easy pace for you. Because you know this music, you can devote your attention to listening and experiencing how your playing or singing feels to you: What is the tone like? How do you start and end notes? How’s the intonation? What phrasing did you naturally choose? Is that the phrasing you really want? Is hitting some notes more difficult than others? Do you have the control you’d like to have? You can play around a bit with the hard parts — try them a few times. But keep in mind that you’re just playing with it, don’t get stuck or be hard on yourself!
Next, work on whatever music you’re focusing on. Now you’re ready to take on some challenges! When you work on new or more demanding material, be methodical. Take notes. Record yourself. Use a metronome to get the timing even and correct. Slow down (!!).
Use your written notes so that the next time you pull out this music to practice, you’ll go right to the tricky part. As you did with the “music you love,” think about tone, phrasing, how you start and end of notes, intonation, control. Be attuned to your body — are you relaxed? Are you able to move and breathe freely? Are you breathing?
Take breaks. Every 20 minutes, stop. Take a deep breath and shake your body. (Put your instrument down first!) Stretch. Take a five minute break and come back to playing, resetting your mind/body by taking a few deep breaths and doing a little physical assessment of your level of relaxation, identifying physical tension and letting it go.
Playing with others, whether in a rehearsal, a jam, or a performance, is fantastic. The time we spend playing alone can be just as wonderful. It gives you a chance to hear yourself clearly, in a way that you can’t when you’re playing with others. You can go slowly enough to notice and address the finest details of your musical expression. You can repeat things you want to try again — whether because you like the way they sound, or because you feel you can improve them, or both! You can do things in any order you want, in any way you want: Loud, soft, or silly. You can learn more about what you love to do, and what you love to hear in your own playing. It’s easy to get more joy out of time spent practicing when we draw our attention to the things that make that time special, unique, and our own.
Have fun and please let me know how it goes!
- Note on warming up: Warmups are not a series of difficult technical exercises that you have to get through before you go to the good stuff. They should be easy and relaxed. If you have learned to hate warming up, skip them.
There are many, many chapters in Best Practice where you’ll find ideas about how to set up and organize your practice time. Here are just a few:
9 — Having a Plan
18 — Taking Notes
21 — The 20-Minute Interval
75 — Are You Breathing?
114 — The Tone Starter
142 — Phrasing and Expression
192 — Making a Recording
Judy Minot is a musician and the author of the book Best Practice: Inspiration and Ideas for Traditional Musicians.
Judy has played and practiced piano since she could reach the keys, training in classical playing until age 16. She now plays traditional music in various settings on a number of instruments, and gives workshops and classes on Best Practice ideas all over the U.S. and virtually.
Judy spent her working life in broadcast television and digital marketing. She holds a 4th degree black belt in the martial art of Kokikai Aikido and is a certified yoga teacher.
For more information visit: www.judyminot.com/bestpractice