4+1 Ways to improve your music instrument practice

Roberta Gennuso
2nd January 2021

Becoming great musicians without practice is a utopia, but perhaps spending 10 hours every day trying and trying again the same passages is not the right way to learn something. Practicing better means optimize time, getting more with less effort. So, as a professional musician this is what I’ve learned. In the last years of practice I have often wondered about how to improve my playing and, most of the time, the answer was hiding in a good practice routine. In fact, the study of a musical instrument, in order for it to become effective, requires a certain organizational choice that can favor the relationship itself with the practice and, consequently, the achievement of remarkable results. Personally, the turning point really happened when I started thinking about everything that could affect my concentration and, above all, my state of mind. Often the latter goes unnoticed but, as we will see, it has great value for us musicians. I therefore decided to summarize years of experience in four points which, believe me, will make you a better musician.

1. Find the right place

We all (well…more or less) have the possibility to choose where to study but, we usually find ourselves with our instrument in hands every time in the exact same place. This is called habit, but are we really in the right place? I asked myself about this, I was surprised at how much this variable is important for concentration, in fact, changing places or moving even just a little means training concentration every single time. Playing on any occasion (be it a lesson or a concert) always requires an initial phase of adaptation and for this reason I asked myself: why not enhance the work that the mind is forced to do to adapt? In this way, the first impact changes even with the most alien place to our daily lives, because it is aimed at finding comfort with the instrument and with the surrounding environment which, at times, is not even helpful. So there is no perfect place to study, if not the ability to evoke our concentration in any context (even on the sofa or bed).

One thing that changes a lot from place to place is the acoustic response, if we are used to hearing our sound in a certain way, we might be disappointed hearing our instrument play differently. And then we know that being able to add a bit of novelty in a daily and repetitive activity can facilitate our enthusiasm for music and not a little.

2. Is NOT always a good moment to practice

Life is a mess. We often find ourselves between exams, sentimental problems and sudden commitments that make it impossible for us to find some concentration. When we are in this situation we MUST NOT STUDY. Yes I know, it doesn't seem like a great idea but think about if you have to add the frustration of not being able to study to the stress of the moment. To study, you need to be in a state of mind that is as peaceful as possible and, when this is not the case, it is much better to take care of finding some serenity rather than forcing one's concentration. But there is more: studying a piece with an anxious mood could lead us to receive that anxiety every time we play it.

So how to find some serenity? Well that's not exactly my field but I can give you some advice that personally helps me. Doing physical activity is a real panacea as well as simply being in the middle of nature, but there are a thousand other ways. In general, when you feel bad, try to do something you want to do but usually don't.

3. Planning is everything

We know it is good to practice every day, but this often leads us to act confused. Instead it is good to think that: studying means asking questions. What doesn't come as I would like? What could I improve? What can I do different than the others? What does this piece mean to me? Finding answers to these and a thousand other questions is your main task, but don't try to answer all of them at the same time, it's much wiser to focus on one at a time.

"studying means asking questions"

Keep a diary in which you write every day what you would like to solve, try to set realistic goals and, above all, work only on that. No matter how long it is, if one day it will only take you 10 minutes to find the answer you were looking for: that's okay! It is not necessary to try too hard, after all tomorrow you will still be there looking for new answers.

4. Rests count

We know that our concentration is not infinite but is actually much shorter than we think and, even if it can be trained, there are limits that cannot be overcome. Concentration for a very trained person can last no more than 45 minutes, so you understand that studying 1 hour or even 2 without ever stopping is totally useless and counterproductive. So TAKE BREAKS, how long? At least 20 minutes would be better but it depends on the quality of your break. Taking a break does not mean dedicating yourself to another activity or checking the notifications of your mobile phone and all your social networks, a good break means drinking a glass of water, having tea, walking a bit and doing all those activities that they do not require a great deal of concentration. Do not even try to question yourself too much about your practice, this is not the time to find your answers: this is the time to allow the mind to be much more active when you pick up your instrument. The power of a short break could be worth more than a lot of time spent practicing.

+1 Bonus hint: Sometimes it’s better to don’t practice

“Musician does not live on practice alone” so we could paraphrase the famous phrase to make it clear that, for your musical training, what you do when you are not practicing is just as important if not even more important. Before try to be a more virtuous musicians, you must try to be a better person. The musician is the one who makes culture his life, consequently the most important thing is to acquire that culture and therefore know as much as possible. Your every passion, every hobby and interest, even the farthest from music, if done with method and passion, will only help you to be better musicians. I feel I have learned a lot by cycling, after all the sense of fatigue, the desire to get to the top of a climb always followed by a wonderful descent at full speed, are things that we also find in music, with our instrument. In short, being better people and with a great wealth of knowledge will be the thing that will make the real difference between you and your colleagues.

Good practice!

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