8 Ways To Get More From Your Practice Time

Oct 09, 20140 Comments Uncategorized


 1. Always Warm up First

I strongly believe that the crucial moment in your practice time is in the very first few minutes: the transition from the everyday slog.  Make it count.  Take a deep breath.  Begin slowly with a few easy, left and right hand exercises. The only goal here is to get your two hands feeling limber and in sync with each other.  Don’t try to play or perform a tune yet.  Playing most  instruments, your fingers and hands only really do two primary movements: UP and the DOWN.  You might as well get damn good at it.

2.  The “Archery Method

For the first half of your practice, try picking a tempo at which you would normally play a scale, lick or piece of music.  Now slow it way, way down.  Play it so that it’s almost uncomfortably slow.  Learn to live well with that discomfort.  Make patience and relaxation your best friend.  This creates a kind of tension; like slowly pulling back a bowstring.  Resist the urge to speed up.  Work on clarity, economy, relaxation, tone, dynamics.  Then, if you’ve pulled it back far enough and held it for long enough, then playing up to speed will just be a matter of softening your gaze, relaxing and letting go.  If it takes hours or days or weeks?  So be it.  Trust that you are getting better without pushing the speed.  Paradoxically, knowing there is no shortcut IS the shortcut.

3. Divide your time into easy, achievable sections.  Set an alarm if it helps.

In this world of a million distractions, it really helps me to set smaller goals.  Focus on each step and the summits will surprise you.

10 mins of warming up
10-15 mins of a new musical exercise, arpeggio or scale pattern
20 mins working on new tune
20 just playing and having fun.: performing the tune and listening

4. Take breaks! 

Stretch.  Drink water.  Jump in place.  Shake it out.  Run around the block.

5. Don’t confuse practice with performance

It’s important to think of practice and the learning of new skills as separate from actually “performing” them.  It doesn’t matter if you’re the only one in the audience.  This is largely due to self criticism.  If you’re expecting to sound good before actually learning something, you’ve already hindered your progress. 
No matter your level, let yourself be a beginner.  Listen and settle in to the feel and sound of each turn of a phrase.  Only once it’s “in your fingers” should you even think about playing it as you would want to hear it played.

6. Ban all distracting devices!  No.  Really.  

If you’re immune to distractions like goofing off on the interwebs then congratulations!  Please tell me how you do it.  For the rest of us,  I like to commit to making AT LEAST two thirds of my practice time device free.  You’ll be surprised at your progress over a few weeks by physically removing all ipads, ipods, iphones and ianything from the iroom altogether.  Ok, so you use slow downer apps, garageband, chat groups, Band in a Box, special tuner blah blah.  You don’t need that crap to practice.  You need to quiet your mind, relax and get your pick and fingers moving up and down.  If you need to check in with the web (one of my famous Youtube tutorials for example) do that in the beginning.  Write down a few crucial points then banish your laptop.  If  it’s a desktop or T.V., put a blanket over it.  I’m serious.  You can always reward yourself for a while at the end with some play-alongs, music software or whatever.  Trust me.  Do this and don’t look back.

7. Are you polishing shiny stones?

It’s very easy to find yourself repeating the easy or comfortable parts of a piece far more than the difficult parts.  I heard this described once as “shiny stone polishing”.  This brings us right back to slowing WAY down. When you really slow a piece, you can’t gloss over the tricky bits and you will rightly treat every note with equal attention.  Every phrase is being “brought into the light.”  A mandolin hero of mine Mike Marshall mentioned in a master class once that even within that one tricky lick, it’s usually just a single note that’s tripping you up!  One note!  It’s very satisfying to get in there and really smooth that one tiny shift or little fingering out.  If you take the time, you’ll realize that the hard lick isn’t as hard as you thought.  You’ll be amazed at how quickly you improve by slowing and focusing on those muddy spots in the tune.

8. 10 times through – relaxed and without a mistake

I got this one from Tim O’Brien years ago.  When I say “mistake” I just mean play it ten times through nice and easy without getting lost, hitting major clams or stopping.  Don’t be too hard on yourself in the first few passes.  Keep it moving and make little mental notes of the places you consistently get lost.  Stop and work those bits out.  It takes time but if you can get it to 10 times without a glitch, you will have actually practiced it maybe 100 times or more over a few days.  Because you’re shooting for only 10 times, you won’t notice that you’ve done so much work.  This helps you focus on the moment at hand.  But remember: the number of times you play something can be hugely damaging if you are ingraining bad habits.  Which, once again, brings us back to SLOWING WAY DOWN.  And as I’m fond of saying: I’m not TELLING you to slow down.  I’m hoping to INSPIRE you to fall in love with the process of slowing down.

Happy picking!