Practice is the main activity of a musician and needs to have priority. Planned practice allows for later assessment of learning and determines whether goals and expectations are met, or are realistic. Strategies for learning and preparing concerts need to be continually revised and refined, and a good practice plan or routine helps especially on low motivation days. For effective practicing, use your mind to organise and plan rather than judging yourself or over-analysing. Planning involves being very systematic, working with goals, time management and planning for physical and mental health.
Systematic planning (EJ)
It is very important to your health and wellbeing to plan your physical practicing by taking care of proper recovery principles. In this way you will build up your strength and prepare your body for the demands of professional life. You will also learn to time your best physical condition moments for when you need them and to trust your body in performance situations. During your student years in particular, it’s worth dividing your practice into periods of time to foster development and enable your skills to develop as required. These can be periods of weeks or as much as a year in total. For example, a practice period of one month can be linked to previous exercises and skills you have learnt. Healthy, varied practice that exercises your whole body guarantees that you have sufficient general strength as well as your ‘instrument-specific’ skills. Planned practice enables optimal development and helps you to avoid burnout and getting injured.
Working with goals (SW)
The importance of goals cannot be underestimated, and successful people are those who know how to set and work with goals. ‘For maximally effective practice, learners must set goals to identify the specific skills and behaviors that they want to achieve and to have a reference point for assessing progress’ (Motor Learning & performance, Schmidt & Wrisberg p.191)
Goals are highly individual and can change during a preparation phase.
Setting goals leads to achievement and a better understanding of the purpose of various learning activities. Planning helps to make practice more efficient.
CARS: To improve performance, goals need to be
- Challenging ‐ Encourages improvement
- Attainable ‐ Achievable given the conditions (Level, time…)
- Realistic ‐ Based on prior performances
- Specific ‐ Measurable
Assessing your present level
To know how you are going; whether you have reached a goal, it is important to know where you are starting from. What are important technical and musical skills and attributes for you/your instrument? Make a list.
Choose 10-12 of these musical and technical qualities and skills on your list and assess them.
Types of goals
- Outcome goals: E.g. winning a competition, audition, high grade
- Performance goals: improving your past performance (e.g. more accuracy, more expressive)
- Process goals: Emphasize particular aspects of skill execution (e.g. controlled breathing, bow movement)
An advantage of goal setting allows you to identify the skills you want to develop.
- Target skills: the tasks you need to acquire your goals. The skills you wish to be able to perform. (e.g. precise finger movements - exact execution of notes)
- Target behaviours: The actions you must be able to produce to perform target skills successfully in context (e.g. proper hand alignment)
- Target context: The environmental context (e.g. lesson, concert, exam, audition)
- Write down details of your next performance
- Using CARS, list 3 goals you would like to achieve
- Select a skill/technique/behaviour from the assessment form that you would like to work on this week
Goals and flow (EN)
How to set flow goals
When all your set goals align with your main goals and are personally meaningful, then the flow feelings of fulfilment, engagement and joy can result. Therefore, in order to experience the positive feelings of flow, you need to clarify your main goal and identify relevant subgoals or short-term objectives that relate to it. This means creating a stack of small goals that you can focus on one at a time. It is important to select clear subgoals as, ‘commitment to a goal and the rules it entails is much easier when the choices are few and clear’. (Csikszentimalyi, 1990, p.225) For example, you may choose to refine a particular passage or work on a set skill today that links to an upcoming performance that then links to an overall future career goal.
The flow feedback loop
While focusing on your chosen subgoals you can encourage flow feelings by concentrating on the sensory and expressive elements of music-making. In this way you can get immediate and clear feedback from your actions so that you always know how you are going. To maintain your engagement through the positive flow feedback loop of setting and achieving goals, keep the momentum of your learning strong by continually setting new and interesting subgoals. At the same time, don’t forget that there is always a period of time needed for integrating new skills, so don´t rush or push yourself through your subgoals too quickly as that can cause strain and stress. If you feel calm and your body is relaxed that means you are moving at a suitable pace, but if you feel anxious and tense then it means you are trying to move too fast through your goals or setting goals that are too challenging.
How to use open questions
You can create open questions based on your sensory and expressive experience to help you to remain immersed and focussed. As you play, ask yourself directed questions such as: ‘Is this a comfortable body feeling?’, ‘Can I feel the sensation of each note?’, or ‘Can I exaggerate the musical quality of these notes?’ In this way you can explore your repertoire and solve problems by setting goals that relate to discovery rather than playing through or repeating mechanically. You might notice that sometimes you feel like changing your plan or the goals that relate to it. You can discover what you need to do next by asking, ‘What is it I would like to do now? or ‘What is it I would most like to achieve?´ In this way you can take personal control of your plan to keep it relevant to your changing needs. Remember that it is your plan, so you can take charge of it!
- Read more:
- The Flow Music Method
- Print out:
- Flow tips for printout
Long, medium and short-term goals (PA)
Long-term goals cover several years. Musicians often describe these goals by saying that they have already known from their childhood what they wanted to achieve. It can be hard to describe these goals verbally as they can appear more as dreams than as concrete goals. In any case they are important as they create a subconscious track for tangible work and can help you to focus on the things that can make your dream a reality. All musicians need long term goals to help direct their energy and planning and this can be done at any time.
Medium term goals are more concrete than long-term goals. Examples are exams, repertoire choice, concerts, competitions, auditions. These help with motivation and become clear milestones for progressing. These goals are often built in to formal study programs enabling a clear path.
Short-term goals are practical tasks that help you to plan daily practicing. They can be goals such as ‘today I’m going to memorize this phrase’ or ‘I’m going to find proper fingerings to this passage’. They make daily practicing more effective and bring better results.
Changing your goals
Sometimes you need to modify or change your goals when they appear to be wrong or uninteresting in a new situation. This requires courage and musicians often seem more inclined to retain their old aims and habits rather than giving them up and finding something more suitable.
- Read more:
- Target Practice
Goal setting (EJ)
Progressive practice by planning physical practicing gradually increases endurance and prepares you for more demanding competition and performance situations. You can’t always practice harder and play more demanding pieces. It’s better to draw up a varied program and ensure that you make any necessary changes as you go along. The main aim of planning your practice is to help your body to recover and thereby achieve better form. When you have the experience of practicing periods and building up your strength, you also learn to plan your preparing and set the goals. Then you can have the best possible timing for your auditions/ competitions and concerts in the future. Goal setting in planning your practicing can be a key to your motivation and help you to be more patient with your daily practicing. Building up your strength gives you a lot of positive body-feedback. Physical wellbeing increases the confidence in your practicing, learning and performing.
- Also see:
- Physical Aspects of Planning
- Read more:
- Planning the Practicing
Practicing time (EJ)
There seems to be a “never ending” conversation about a proper daily practicing time. The brain researchers say the optimal time for learning per day is around 4 hours. Some research result says that the average practicing time seems to be 3h 45min a day, with some students saying they need many more hours. If you keep practicing long hours every day without maintaining a good focus and repeat mistakes and get results slowly, you might be wasting your time anyway. Find good / best practicing techniques for yourself, recognize your best practicing times and learn to be more focused when you practice to get good results in a shorter time frame.
Musicians are different also in physical ways. For example, different people have different kinds of muscles types. One type of muscle maintains strength easily but needs more time for sensitive motor skill practicing and another type of muscle works more easily in sensitive and fast movements but cannot maintain its strength for a long period of time. Each individual musician needs to focus on their own balance of physical needs during their practice. Make sure you find the best way for yourself - don`t compare your physical self with other musicians.
- Read more:
- Planning the Practicing
Structuring Practice – Practice Spiral (GM)
Prioritise Practice Time: Practice spiral cycle
Visualising a spiral helps students focus on the following interlinking key areas during practice. The students need to learn to help themselves during their private practice time between lessons and maximise their effectiveness. The ‘practice spiral’ is an image describing an ongoing process which starts with clear intention, leading to execution, reflection, calibration and reinforcement.
Some sample questions associated with each key area are:
- Intention: What would you like to achieve? Define specific task and ways to tackle it. The clearer the intention is defined, the better the practice process will be.
- Execution: Practice must involve active listening. Be prepared to evaluate what you just did. What traps did you fall into and how could you be ready sooner in order to avoid them?
- Reflection: Following evaluation, articulate what elements you want to consolidate and what you want to change. Allow more space between repetitions. Are you clear about you new objectives and do they represent small enough goals?
- Varied Repetition: play again with new objectives
- Consolidation: Once a desired execution has been reached, focused repetition forms a vital component in retention.
The practice spiral provides a basic structure for an effective practice regime.
Physical aspects of planning
Planning short-term practicing (EJ)
Short term practicing means practice time frames from one to three weeks. It takes your muscles about 24 hours on average to recover from a demanding practice session. This means that you need to plan your practicing in terms of alternating days of light and heavy sessions so that you don't strain yourself. On a lighter day, it is recommended that you include an easier practice session so that your body will keep strengthening your tired muscles.
In practice it means that during a heavy day you could play through your program or play more loud things or just play longer. On a lighter day you could focus more on the details, take more short breaks or practice physically "lighter" repertoire or just practice for less time.
Planning long term practicing (EJ)
During the month-long time frame you can plan your practicing so that you increase the amount of practicing during the first three weeks. You can then have a “light week” (week 1), “medium week” (week 2) and a “heavy week” (week 3). It is important that every fourth week is always a recovery week so week 4 should be lighter than week 1 in terms of loading. This is because the tiny blood vessel networks that transport energy to your muscles need time to renew themselves every fourth week. If you want to improve your overall muscle condition, you have to give your body time to renew and repair its capillaries, otherwise constant heavy practicing could eventually lead to injury.
Endurance and strength (EJ)
Correctly timed physical practicing and good recovery techniques will ensure that you build up strength and endurance in your playing. Your need to let your body build up strength by using the right kind of planning in your practice.
- Read more:
- Planning the Practicing
- Print out:
- Practicing Plan Diary
Mental aspects of planning
Mental Planning –GM
Mental planning starts with the decision to think about how you learn and how to improve your approach to practicing and performing. This is the process of reflecting. However, reflection around the learning techniques themselves is often overshadowed by the focus on specific details on how to play a particular piece in the repertoire. Focusing on ‘learning to learn’ is important because it leads to greater understanding and taking control of your own development.
Who is in charge? GM)
It is never superfluos to discuss the role of the mental direction in effective practice, as many students fall in the trap of practising with their fingers instead of their brain. We learn what we practise and the brain does not make a distinction between correct or incorrect material. Whatever gets the most repetitions will get absorbed. For example, if a student stumbles repeatedly in the same place, then retakes and goes on to play the correct version of a passage on the second ‘try’, in effect a new piece has been created, with an extra phrase incorporated. Greater observation on the part of the student should be promoted, choosing specific elements to concentrate on during each practice or each repetition. Observation can then lead to reflection and planning for effective solving of individual practice tasks. Linear practice is also often overused, and not conducive to quick learning in the early stages.
Practice games (GM)
Practice games which facilitate purposeful repetition and active listening are a fun way to promote reflection. Identifying traps in pieces and planning varying elements ahead of starting to play is a very effective way to shift attention away from the syndrom of correcting mistakes. Mental preparation is then used to stay alert to the challenges that the piece presents and devise solutions to deal with these challenges. This encourages a more creative approach to practice and prompts self-reliance and independent thought.
Detective work – what is your mindset?(GM)
Self awareness is also a tool, and this should be used to observe negative running commentary that is often present in the mental background during practice. This always tends to be general and the best antidote is devising specific, objective goals that can be achieved in a given timeframe.
Varied Feedback (GM)
Feedback is available from a variety of sources. The most obvious one is always the feedback coming from the teacher, who can provide specific, constructive and expert advice. However, self-assessment is a vital element of learning, and this is a type of feedback that can often be improved. The student can learn to reflect on their performance in order to plan practice strategies and set tasks. Opportunities for supportive peer feedback should also be found, as these interractions promote increased opportunities to share experiences. Other forms of feedback include masterclasses, concerts, competitions and auditions.
One must give permission for flexibility within practice schedules. Allowing the student to “match the mood with the task” is effective in dealing with procrastination, as the mental and emotional well-being of the student is very influential in settling down to practice.
Effecting Change (GM)
Setting out to effect change can be better framed as a process where we bring what is already happening to the surface of our conscious thought by observing.
This often leads to natural shifts in focus. Focusing on breathing is one of the most obvious examples. Seeking mindfulness in the body turns the attention towards noticing where we hold tension and how we move. But listening to what we really tell ourselves is crucial. This process is like holding up a mirror to observe our mindset and the conflicting ideas that might be influencing it.
Mental Intrusions (GM)
This is the voice that Edgar Allan Poe called ‘the imp’ who provides unexpected commentary in the background of our minds. Trying to control this voice by giving specific instructions preceded by “don’t think about …” only serve to strengthen that thought.
This is because monitoring occurs in the background, in other words, checking for the absence of that thought results only in reinforcing it.
The attempt to remove an unpleasant thought has the opposite effect.
Therefore, rather than trying to ‘silence the inner critic’, we can substitute a string of specific tasks and work on giving ourselves feedback on these. Affirmations or non-verbal cues can be very effective at supplanting repetitive negative thoughts.
This is the ability to delay gratification – and the emotional intelligence to devise mental games to achieve your goals. “It’s hard for the controlled system to beat the automatic system by willpower alone; like a tired muscle, the former soon wears out and caves in, but the latter runs automatically effortlessly, and endlessly.”
For example, visualizing future satisfaction resulting from completing a goal can help overcome the urge to stop the practice activity.