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Effective Practice Routines

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This Online Lesson is (c) , Ryan Fraser. All right reserved. NO COMMERCIAL DISTRIBUTION.

Professional Advice.
The real difference between professionals and amateurs in music can be summed up in two sentences:

  1. Pros know how to think on their feet for almost any unplanned situation.
  2. Pros make the most of their practice time.
We will talk about item (1) on another day, but for now, I know that the question that you are dying to ask is how do you make the most of your practice time? Professionals have an inherent advantage: since we do music for money, we don't want to be spending all of our time working. But, we need to work in order to make money. See the difficulty? The best way around it is to make practice as smooth and effective as possible.

Why you shouldn't practice all of the time.

One of the things that always makes me wince is to hear a student say that their teacher has told them that they must practice some ungodly sum of hours a day in order to improve. Aside from the problems like Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) that this will cause, it doesn't make sense from a psychological viewpoint.

Scientists have discovered that your memory for any given task is most effective during (roughly) the first ten minutes and the last ten minutes that you practice that task. (Whew, follow that?!) Put more simply, you are going to remember the beginning and the end, and forget most of the middle.

Lets do some memory "math". Let's assume that you can remember 90% of the first and last ten minutes of your practise routine, and that you only remember 10% of anything you inbetween. So, lets say you practice for one full hour. Here's the math:

10 mins X 90% effectiveness = 9 minutes of remembered practice.
40 mins X 10% effectiveness = 4 minutes of remembered practice.
10 mins X 90% effectiveness = 9 minutes of remembered practice.

TOTAL: 22 minutes remembered out of 1 hour.

Ouch! This means that you are only remembering around 37% of what you practice. Of course, this is a rather unscientific method to go about calculating things - you aren't going to remember certain minutes, and completely forget others. But, we're just using it to give you a rough idea on how your brain works.

So what happens if you practice for 20 minutes, take a 20 minute break, and practice for another 20 minutes? Let's do the math:

10 mins X 90% effectiveness = 9 minutes of remembered practice.
10 mins X 90% effectiveness = 9 minutes of remembered practice.

20 minutes of Rest

10 mins X 90% effectiveness = 9 minutes of remembered practice.
10 mins X 90% effectiveness = 9 minutes of remembered practice.

TOTAL: 36 minutes remembered out of 40 minutes.

Wait a minute - that's about 90% effective!!! Even more astounding, you've only practiced for 40 minutes - but you
remember 14 more minutes than you do if you practice for a full hour. That's about a 63% increase in efficiency. AND, you can go have a tea, watch some television, have a conversation, listen to some of my sound clips, in the 20 minute break. Whew! Pretty incredible, isn't it?

Pros don't WANT to spend all of their time practising. Believe it or not, they want to spend some time with their families, and do relaxing things, like woodworking or accounting (I kid you not!). Taking breaks, however, by splitting up practice time is only one way to make your routine more effective.

Get rid of Distractions

Most people in modern society have an attention span of roughly 3 minutes. Stop for a moment and think about your practice environment. I had a student a while back who had their computer permanently hooked up to the internet. This student had difficulties practising, since about every 4 minutes, their ICQ connection would shout "Uh-oh!" everytime a friend paged them. Needless to say, practising while in the same room as the computer was not a very good situation at all!

Your practice space should be clean, quiet, and as remote from the day-to-day distractions of life as possible AND it should be insulated against people. Be able to lock the door, and make sure that you will only be interrupted for emergencies. Make sure that you are not going to be interrupted just because there is a great sale on the home shopping network! (I would suggest being interrupted for things like national emergencies, fires, etc.!)

Blow Chunks.

OK, so perhaps this isn't the most appealing way to phrase what I am trying to get at, but I bet you aren't going to forget it anytime soon, right?! Here is what I mean: When you first learn a piece, sit down and find out where the hard parts are. Start there. Human nature makes many of us put off doing hard things in favour of the easier things. Many of us, for example, hate to practice where other people might overhear us. So, instead of spending hours playing over the parts that need alot of painful practice, we tend to jump right to the stuff that we can play, in order to wow and amaze the surrounding people. The net result? A big, fat zero (unless maybe its a record producer who is near by...!) Who wants to be heard playing stuff badly?

In fact, what you need to do is to ignore the easy stuff, and spend those painful hours on the hard stuff. The result? You will be a better player, AND THEN you can go out and amaze everybody with your playing. But there is a much more important reason to do things in chunks.

Let's say that you are going to learn a new piece for the first time. You might want to play it through once or twice and get a feel for it. But try this next time. Take the first full bar. Play it - SLOWLY - with your metronome (you have a metronome, right?!) Pick the lowest setting you can go to. After you can play it at that speed, set it a few clicks higher and try again. Continue, until you can no longer keep up with the metronome. Then, repeat the process on the second bar. Start slow, and build it up. Finally, do the whole process AGAIN, but with the first and second bars. You should find, that in a relatively small amount of time, you can actually work the piece very close to tempo in small bits. Keep repeating the process, and putting the pieces together. (Sort of like a giant musical jigsaw puzzle.) If you spend 5 minutes a bar to get it to tempo, your average piece of music can be put together within a couple of hours, at least from a basic technical standpoint.

Compare this to playing it straight through - you won't learn anything and it might take you months to learn the music. Your brain can't handle too much information - so feed it in small chunks. Incidentally, this is the reason to practice scales - you are really learnning very small chunks of most of the music you will ever play. The better you know the scales, the easier it will be for you to learn the pieces which are made up of little bits of different scales!

Know your limits!

As a certain cellphone company in Canada has been fond of saying "we are all unique." Certainly this holds true for saxophonists. Your physical and mental limits while practising are probably very different from mine. Some people are easily frustrated - others can work at the same two notes for hours. Give your self strategies which work with your own temperament. For example, if you are easily frustrated, schedule frequent breaks. Don't let yourself get so worked up that you are paralyzed from a learn point-of-view. Also, be aware of your physical limits - practising through pain will only make your pain worse - and eventually stop your music career dead in its tracks.

And finally. . .

That's enough for now - this should give you lots to think about. I'll post a "Part 2" to this in the future. Remember, effective practice is the singular best way to improve. Happy Practising!


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