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How to practice your instrument: a quick five-step guide

Musicians are like great athletes: in order to practice and improve their vocal or instrumental skills, they must maintain a level of physical and psychological fitness. This is easy as long as you work smart, not hard… Unsure of how to do it? Follow this guide.

Musicians and parents of young musicians: do you or your little genius still struggle with the same musical passage, making you want to throw in the towel?

This happens all the time, despite the hours dedicated to practicing scales or coaching your budding musician. But know that a musician is like a high-level athlete, and improve vocal or instrumental skills means maintaining a healthy physique and psychological state. Provided one works smart, not hard, to avoid exhaustion or a loss of motivation. Here are 5 points we suggest to allow you to make progress whilst keeping that smile on your face.

1. Work regularly

Depending on your instrument, set aside daily time for practice.

Your teacher certainly warned you from the very start: it is better to practice 10 minutes every day than one hour once a week. Ten years later, this advice is still valid. Amateur musicians know this well: if you have ever forgotten your instrument for a long period of time, it is always difficult when you are finally reunited. The muscles no longer respond as they used to, and certain gestures no longer seem familiar... Your muscle memory may still remember how to play your favourite works, but not at all to your past level. It is because practicing music means first of all being regular in maintaining your physical and mental fitness.

It's a scientific fact: when faced with new information, your brain stores it using the working memory. Whether you take a piece from your own repertoire or start learning a new work, working regularly will allow your brain to gradually integrate the necessary elements to move forward. In fact, according to researchers, working memory can only hold a limited amount of information. It is retained for a certain time before being "erased" along with other information. Therefore, in order to assimilate new skills, long-term memory must be involved, a memory with unlimited storage capacity but which also requires a little more time before it is truly efficient.

Do not neglect technical exercises. Just like a great sportsman, practicing technique in small regular doses will help you warm up your fingers or vocal chords, allowing you to work on their elasticity. As the level increases, so does the time needed to work. Nonetheless, as we will see below, quantity does not necessarily guarantee quality.

2. Set clear goals

Draw yourself a mind-map that will allow you to reach a clearly defined goal.

Start by identifying your weaknesses: are they technical? Do they stem from bad memorisation or interpretation? Then, isolate the problematic parts or elements that you aim to resolve at the end of your practice session.

Ask yourself the following questions: What should I do and how should I do it? It is not enough to play the same passage three times, you must find an additional goal. For example, set the tempo at which you want to play the problematic passage and all the parameters that go with it: no wrong notes, a good articulation, and with the right phrasing and nuances.

There are many parameters to take into account when practicing an interpretation: you can work on technique while also attending to position and flexibility, articulation, sound quality, expression, and memorisation. Each parameter can be a specific goal. All of these considered together is already a demanding task!

3. Give your instrument the attention it deserves

No, practicing your scales while binge-watching your favourite TV show is not a good way to work.

Indeed, if it’s not conscious, the muscular effort is in vain. Even if you have spent a long time practicing, doing these exercises without mentally identifying each step and, above all, without spotting your mistakes and weaknesses is a waste of your time. You should have watched the show on your couch...

Bear in mind that concentration is not linear. When working, you will likely experience saturation. If you feel like you're losing track, take a moment to do something else: play a piece you already know, put your instrument aside or start sight-reading a new score. Your mind will be clearer once you get back to work.

4. Identify your weaknesses

When you start a session, play the piece from beginning to end and identify the problematic passages.

Record yourself or play in front of others. Analyse the difficulties. If you think you can overcome them on your own, pay attention to each point and work on them separately. For example, a series of octaves, jumps or chords each represent a separate technical problem for pianists. Set them apart in sequences, approach them first with a slow tempo, increasing the pace as your go on. Repeat each passage five or fifty times...it all depends on the quality of your sequenced work.

However, if you do not find a method on your own or if you have little experience, turn to your teacher with specific questions. Then try to integrate the hard passage to a larger musical phrase, and then to a longer part of the piece. And only when you get it right, play it entirely.

5. Change perspective

Even if you have been playing or singing your piece for a while and you feel like you own every bit of it, know that it can still trick you.

Oftentimes, when we learn a new discipline, there comes to a point when we switch to automatic mode. This is true for music, driving, and activities such as playing tennis and other sports. We are capable of driving or hitting the opponent's ball back without consciously thinking. This is the point when we can say that we have mastered the basics, but something is preventing us from moving forward. To achieve this, it is necessary to define new challenges in order to overcome these automatisms and push our boundaries.

For example, you learned a piece, you can play it by heart correctly. You can play it for years. Your interpretation will stay at the same level though you may be eventually surprised because what you thought was set in stone may have faded without you even noticing.

Beware of automatisms! According to the researchers, our brain is programmed to react to change. Once information has been recorded, if the action is repeated without any changes to the stimulus (i.e. the source of the information), each repetition will use a decreasing amount of brain power. And the brain's responses will become less and less relevant. So, keep playing, but change your angle: your brain will be grateful.