Regular practice is the key to progress and success as a musician. But if you’re finding that progress is slow or not happening at all, it could be your practice approach that is at fault. Even if you spend an hour a day playing the same piece over and over again, it doesn’t guarantee improvement. There are many reasons why you’re not getting over those technical difficulties and making the same mistakes every time. Here are the top 5 mistakes you’re making during practice sessions:
Your time is precious. Don’t waste it by playing the bits you can already do. Tackle only what isn’t working. If you go back to the beginning again, you are wasting valuable minutes that could be spent fixing a problem.
Convincing yourself that you have to get it right all in one go from the beginning is preventing you from getting any better. Instead, work solidly on the bits that didn’t sound right (even if that’s only one fuzzy note).
You don’t need run-ups. You just need to start a note or two before the problem area.
Not Reading Teacher’s Notes
Your teacher, if you have one, spends his time writing detailed practice notes for you in the lesson. If you ignore them, then you won’t be working on the right things. You’ll turn up to lesson frustrated with a poor week of practice. And your teacher will be frustrated that all the same problems he wrote about last week are still evident.
A good teacher helps you identify a problem area. He will then show you how it should sound. Then you can both work together to recreate that sound for yourself. Finally, some notes will be put in your practice book to help you remember how to work on that problem. So be sure to read it!
As musicians, our entire brain is used to play a piece of music. We’re seeing a lot in the sheet music. The details of pitch, rhythm, articulation and dynamics need to be read. We’re also remembering where the keys are on the instrument that we need to play. Physically we’re also co-ordinating two hands and possibly two feet as well. You might even be remembering details like the melody in your head as you play. So to be able to listen to the sound you make as well takes a lot of concentration.
It is essential that you do focus on your sound. Many instruments require minute adjustments of breath, finger pressure, mouth position, or bow angle, to create the tonal quality and perfect pitch we need for every note in the piece.
Just getting the physical movements right for a note to sound at the right point in time is not enough. That’s not musicianship. You need to hear the pitch and make the fine adjustments needed for clarity of tone. Every attack and release should be focussed. It’s a lot to do. That’s why we practice just a few bars at a time!
Not Focusing On What Needs Work
Many of us have some beautiful repertoire and pieces that we’re working on right now. We love the shape of the melody and the contrast between the phrases. We get lost in the motion and direction of the music. And then we arrive at the end of the piece. As much as we enjoy playing the pieces we practice, that’s not what practice is.
It’s important to remain focused on the task at hand. Repetition is one of the best ways to secure the technique needed for each individual phrase. You’ll be able to repeat a small number of notes far more often in your practice session if you’re not playing the rest of the piece as well. Save the big play-throughs for the last day before the lesson. You’ll enjoy it more if there are no slips, errors or stumbles interrupting the flow!
Not Understanding What Is Wrong
Another problem with playing a piece all the way through is that you don’t spend enough time figuring out why the same things keep going wrong. If the pitch is wrong, then you know to spend your practice session correcting it. But playing all the way through doesn’t do much to help you understand the reason for an unhappy performance.
If you get to the end of the piece and feel something was lacking, you will have to go back through to figure out where the disappointing sections were. Tackle this phrase by phrase. If you’re happy with the first phrase, start the second.
Recording your session and scrutinising it on playback is a great way to identify a poor quality sound. We often don’t notice it when we’re busy playing our instrument. You can test your recording against a pitched instrument like the piano to check you were in tune. Or you could even play along with it to see where the discrepancies are.
If you can’t figure out how to fix a problem, write the bar number in your notebook to take to the lesson. Your teacher will then be able to help you identify what is wrong, and give you ways to solve it. Ignoring it means you won’t improve, and you’re wasting valuable practice time.