Five Practice Habits to Become a Better Musician

Musicians spend countless hours and endless amounts of energy perfecting their craft. They learn invaluable skills such as consistency, patience, and how to cultivate a powerful, efficient work ethic. Unfortunately, many musicians focus far more on the quantity of their practice time rather than its quality, whereas I would suggest that the opposite strategy is what is necessary for one to attain their full musical potential. And so, how can musicians optimize their practice so that they can get the best out of the time they spend? Here are my five personal practice habits that I believe will help you to do just that:

1. Record Yourself During Your Practice

Hearing yourself play as an objective listener has many benefits for improving musicality. As musicians, we must also learn to be our own teachers, but it can be hard to objectively listen to yourself simultaneously playing your instrument. Recording can therefore be very beneficial in this regard as it allows you to evaluate your playing objectively. To achieve an even better result, use a notebook while listening to yourself. Write down everything that you notice—both what you liked and what you didn’t—just as if you were critiquing another player. Remember that as your own teacher you must provide balanced feedback, and so praising yourself for what you did well is just as important as pointing out spots that need improvement. Incorporating this simple habit into your practice regimen will allow you to evaluate yourself objectively and to grow exponentially as a musician.  

2.  Reserve Time for Mental Practice

While mental practice is probably the most neglected aspect of practicing, it is perhaps the most crucial. Often, we think that mechanically trudging through a hard passage of music repeatedly is the only strategy for mastering it. This repeated action creates muscle memory which can be technically useful, but can also take longer to achieve and rarely leads to a musically satisfying performance. Mental practice, however, can be much more effective because it solidifies the notes in your mind while simultaneously engaging your brain in the actual physical activity. There are various ways in which people use mental practice. Some take a moment away from their instrument and sing the notes in their mind to clarify and add lyrical nuance to difficult sections or to help with the memorization of a piece. Others use it to overcome stage fright by envisioning themselves successfully performing at an upcoming concert. Even if it’s only for 10 minutes a day, I strongly suggest adding this powerful strategy to your practice regimen.

3. Verbally Tell Your Hands What to Do

Another method to help with tough passages is verbal practice. We can waste so much time almost literally trying to beat our hands into submission, but what they really need is clarity, especially when learning a new technique such as spiccato. Therefore, take a minute to tell your hands what to do. Whether that means looking at your right hand and orally telling it something like “down, down, up, down” while slowly miming it, or looking at your left hand and telling it the fingering while placing those fingers slowly on the fingerboard—it all aids in removing mental blocks. The spoken word has much more power than words that are not actually verbalized, and so make sure that you actually articulate what you would like your hands to do. You’ll be surprised at just how quickly this simple habit can bring a challenging passage under your technical and lyrical control.

4. Spend 10 Minutes on Experimental Practice

Many classical musicians stick to their routine of scales, etudes, and repertoire, never allowing themselves the freedom of experimentation. The idea of technical perfection at the expense of musicality pervades the classical music culture resulting in significantly detrimental effects. Perfectionism keeps musicians from experimenting on their instrument and therefore from truly knowing its capabilities. How can you know what is causing your tone to sound crunched or squeaky unless you have pushed your instrument to that point before? With knowledge derived from such experimentation comes significant growth as a musician. You will become comfortable with sounding bad so that you can sound good later as you deepen the relationship between you and your instrument. All you need is 10 minutes of pure experimentation each practice session to improve your musicality tenfold.

5.  Discover the Story in Every Piece You Play

The great Italian painter and sculptor Michelangelo once declared that every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it. This sentiment has always stuck with me and has changed the way that I look at art. When applying this same idea to music, I can tweak the quote to read that every piece of music has a story inside of it and it is the task of the musician to discover it. This idea can be thought of as another form of mental practice, but with the twist of added exploration. Discovering your story within the music not only helps with memory, but also with tapping into the emotional aspects of the piece. Some people focus on textures and colors and how that can be conveyed through their interpretation of a piece. They consider what phrases would sound like played in different moods or mediums and delve into what the composer wished to express. Others create a whole scene or short story for every piece that they play. They explore all the different ways in which the story can be told and then choose the one which most closely resonates with them. Such nuanced interpretations are what is required to elevate a musician to the level of an artist.

Creating a story also gives you another tether to grasp on to when memorizing a piece. In case of a memory slip, you just have to remember what happens next in the story. This allows your brain to create multiple connections to the same musical idea. This technique gives you as the musician the ability to remain engrossed in the emotive side of your playing and not obsess over the technical aspects of the work. Your audience will feel like you are leading them on a journey and will become immersed in the emotional valence of the music.  

Practice can be a grueling ordeal if viewed from the perspective of perfectionism, but I hope that through these five methods you will discover lasting joy in the pursuit of your artistic craft.

1 thought on “Five Practice Habits to Become a Better Musician

  1. Nicki Shadburn says:

    This is wonderful advice, Ivana! So proud of you! You are inspiring many with your knowledge and love of music!

Comments are closed.