"Practice makes perfect."
We hear that phrase again and again, from parents, teachers, peers. Yet we also hear the tried-and-true "nothing/nobody's perfect" - often as not, coming from the exact same people.
No matter who you are and what your interests are, practicing of one kind or another is something that has some relevance for everyone, in realms as diverse as math, music, athletics, or public speaking. And it's also something many people - myself very much included - struggle with, especially with other stuff going in your life to balance with practice time. (School, house chores, extracurriculars, social life, etc.) It's important to be able to manage practice as part of your life, be it studying for school or a personal hobby.
Managing practice is easier said than done, though—so today I'm going to talk about some important things to remember/methods that I find helpful when it comes to practicing. As a musician (music being a quintessential illustration of just how crucial practicing is!), I'll probably be using music as an example throughout this blog post, but keep in mind that most, if not all, of these can be applied to many other spheres of life without too much difficulty.)
Straightforward as it sounds, this simple question is essential if you hope to have meaningful, productive practice sessions. Why do this in the first place? For many people, the answer might be "Because my teacher said so", or "My parents think I should". That's fine... but, speaking from experience, if that's the only motivation you have, your practice just won't be as good as if you're also internally motivated. Sure, you'll probably still improve somewhat, but if you're just going through the motions, it's simply not the same as if your heart is really in it. While it's great to have external influences prompting you to practice, ideally, practice should be a choice that you make, based on a reason that is important to you.
Now, as for what that reason is, it could be almost anything. Maybe you have an orchestra audition, or basketball tryouts. Or maybe you just want to generally improve at playing piano or at shooting hoops. Even if it's school-related and you want to get a good grade in your class, that's still a motivation. The particular goal of practicing doesn't matter so much, to my mind, as the fact that you are motivated in the first place, that you have some reason or other that's important to you personally. And if you're really not sure why you should practice other than that people tell you too, that's okay. Try sitting down with your parents and trying to figure out together what there is to gain from practicing, or getting thoughts from friends on their motivations - see if any of that applies to you. If, in the end, even with help, you still honestly can't think of a single good reason to support your practice, it may be time to rethink whether it's worth committing your time and energy to this.
If you can answer the why question, then that will make everything else so much easier - you'll have a genuine reason to care about it, and that's half the struggle of practice right there.
- Regular Schedule
One of the major problems I encounter with practicing is just getting around to it. Like with so many other things, it's easy to procrastinate. One way to help counter procrastination is to schedule a regular practice slot in your day. That way, once you get into the habit of sticking to your schedule, practicing can become just a part of your daily routine.
It's alright if you don't stick entirely to your plan, and taking a break can be refreshing once in a while too. That said, if you go too long without practicing, it's a steep uphill climb when you return (trust me, I know!). Think of it as getting out of shape (quite literally, in the context of sports - or even music, where certain muscles and callouses will dwindle); it's not just that you won't improve, you'll lose some things as well. If you're considering taking a week off, just keep the consequences in mind so you know what you're in for upon return. Getting back up to speed is doable... but be prepared for a challenge.
I do recommend trying to keep track of how much (and when) you're practicing. If you notice you haven't practiced at all for two weeks, it might be time to evaluate what's going on, and try to fix it for the future. And if you've practiced every day for a month, give yourself a pat on the back and keep up the good work!
- Practice For Results (Not Time)
A regular practice routine is important - however, that's only one aspect of practicing. One of the easiest pitfalls, I've found, is to concentrate exclusively on the amount of time. Spend an hour and a half playing a cello solo straight through, over and over and over, and sure, you'll probably improve at least a bit at that specific solo, just by rote. But if you isolate the problem measures, figure out methods of addressing whatever the specific challenge is for you, and spend just fifteen minutes concentrating just on those measures... and then maybe playing the whole piece through just once at the end. "Smart practice" is both more time-efficient and beneficial than time-oriented practice. Results of improvement should be the goal of a good practice session, not a large hunk of your day to mark off on your chart.
- Slower Practice = Faster Improvement
This is fairly self-explanatory, and a part of "smart practice"—at least when it comes to music, and I imagine most other things as well. It can be tempting to rush ahead, but slow and steady wins the race; in the context of music, inch that metronome up g r a d u a l l y, until you can play perfectly at the slower tempo. If you can keep the self-restraint to build up a secure foundation, it'll pay huge dividends in the end.
- Plan (& Have Fun!)
Knowing what results you want makes smart practice much easier, so take a few extra minutes before you actually bring out your instrument, textbook, baseball, etc., to work out your practice goals for the day. Assuming you follow through, it'll pay off in the end in time, improvement and a sense of satisfaction. If it makes you more motivated, you could also reward yourself when you have a productive session. Or, if you have friends with the same interest, get together for a joint practice session! What different people enjoy will vary, but it's okay to have fun in the practice process. Discipline is important, but ideally, practicing shouldn't feel only like a chore.
Yes, be serious about your practice - but "fun practice" is not an oxymoron!
There's more to practicing than physically doing it. As a musician, muscle memory is a big factor - but only one. I can't always actually take out my instrument, but when I'm in the car I can always run through the piece in my head, imagine blowing air into my flute, mentally "finger" notes, catch myself on mistakes I'm likely to make. Research has shown that visualization (in combination with real practice, obviously) can actually improve performance on many different kinds of tasks. If I can do it and scientists can study it, you can do it too!
- Be Realistic - Know Your Limits
Let's be real. If you want to join the New York Philharmonic or compete in the Olympics, you'd better buckle down. However, the vast majority of us won't get to that level, and that's fine. It's not an all-or-nothing deal. Just because Yo-Yo Ma practices 5-6 hours a day doesn't mean you have to. Most of us don't have that kind of time to dedicate to practice - try an hour, or 45 minutes. Sometimes small chunks work better for people, either because of busy schedules or because such extended periods of concentration can be hard. Maybe four 15-minute sessions are best for you, as opposed to sitting down for an hour straight. That's fine.
Figure out what works best for you, personally, and how much you can handle. Biting off more than you can chew won't help anything. It's not laziness to acknowledge that something is getting overwhelming. Know your limits, and know how much you can realistically take on and still function.
In the end, though it can translate easily to school, private lessons, rehearsal, or training, practicing should be a personally rewarding thing. While practice sure doesn't make perfect, it sure does make better.
What areas of your life do you practice for? Do you have favorite (or least favorite) parts of practicing? Are any of these tips helpful for you? What are some of your own practice techniques?
As always, please share comments below - I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences with practice. :)