Practice makes perfect. We are all familiar with this well intentioned mantra. I prefer to think that practice makes progress. Perfection is an unattainable goal that we as mere mortals are not capable of. There will always be something that can be improved on, but when we submit to the ritual of practice with an open heart and curious mind, progress is inevitable! As we endeavour to learn an instrument or any skill we desire to possess, practicing is the best tool we have and our attitude towards practice plays an important role. We all know we should do it, yet it can sometimes feel like a struggle, one that involves feelings of frustration, inadequacy and boredom. It is important to remember that the need to practice begins with the desire to make music. It is the joy we derive and the connection we feel to music that fills us with the desire to play and sing. When we keep this in mind, practice becomes play and progress is the result.
Here are few things to remember: musicians are athletes. Start your practice session with a physical warmup. Stretching increases your circulation and energy and wakes up the body to the task at hand.
Set an intention. Twenty minutes of focused mindful practice is far more effective than an hour of mindless repetition. Choose a song or section of music that you are having difficulty with to focus on. Break it down into small, manageable pieces and practice it slowly. Try playing or singing it in different ways like practicing it from the end instead of the beginning, or changing the rhythm. If after five or ten minutes you find you aren’t getting anywhere and frustration is setting in, move on to something else and come back to this section another time.
Be present. Stay connected to your instrument, your body, and the music. Practicing is about connecting sensation to positive aural feedback. You need to stay engaged, otherwise you are just going through your music and hoping for the best. To quote Albert Einstein, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. Remember: you are your own best teacher; pay attention to the messages your body is sending you.
Lastly, celebrate your accomplishments, no matter how small. It’s important to recognize yourself for good work, and not get hung up on results. Learning is about process. If you put consistent and mindful time into practice, you will see results. Any major accomplishment is comprised of many small steps, as well as victories and challenges. It is your state of mind that will determine how successful you are. When you can stay in touch with the joy of music that drew you to your instrument in the first place, practicing will never feel like a chore.
Jennifer O’Donnell, voice and clarinet teacher