The 4 keys to practice success!
Updated: May 17, 2021
As the UK plunges into its third lockdown and I'm here enjoying life in liberal Sweden, I'm reminded of the challenges lockdown poses for young musicians.
Spring/Summer 2020 was supposed to be the most exciting and rewarding part of my time at RNCM, however this was not to be. I missed out on several big orchestral projects, a tour to China, and of course, my final recital.
I spent the first lockdown at my parents' house in Northamptonshire. I'm lucky to have very supportive parents and an adorable puppy to keep me motivated! It was during this time that I experimented and developed strategies for effective practice, as the lockdown had provided time and space without deadlines and pressure for me to refocus on myself and my own goals. This leads me to the first key:
Whether you thrive on a busy schedule or not, no one can deny that having regular goals is important to stay motivated and productive.
During lockdown, when there is no pre-set schedule, it's important to set your own goals. This can be anything: learning a new piece, recording yourself or creating a multitrack video of yourself.
It's important to set goals that you will be able to stick to and actually achieve! A common acronym used to check your goal-setting is SMART:
(Diagram courtesy of https://cmcoutperform.com/setting-smart-goals)
If your goals are "SMART", you will be sure to have done something that you can be proud of!
2. MENTAL PRACTICE
This is something that is often overlooked but can actually have a huge impact!
Mental practice is any form of work in connection with your current repertoire, that is done away from your instrument. This can include:
listening to the music
following the score
researching the piece (inc. premier, structure, meaning etc)
researching the composer
planning a practical practice session
visualising a successful performance
practising the mechanics of playing the piece without the instrument
Whilst physically practising your instrument is the only way to ensure accuracy; mental practice can serve as a useful tool when you are unable to be with your instrument. It can also be a positive and calm way to think about your interpretation before adding in the stress of whether or not this is coming across in your playing.
I find that doing mental practice is great to keep me going at the weekends when I want to be at home with my family, and not stuck in a practice room on my own. It is also easy to do when commuting to/from college.
As with anything that requires physical exertion, it is important to look after your body.
Whilst playing an instrument might not seem very demanding at first, the awkward positions we put ourselves in, and the strain we place upon ourselves is astounding.
Each instrument presents its own challenges. For example:
for violinists, it is often the left arm that takes the strain as it has to be held up, and with the wrist turned inwards too. Which is completely unatural.
for cellists, it is easy to hold tension in the shoulders which can cause pain. Whilst for some the position of the legs can cause hip and knee pain if you sit still for too long and get stiff!
It is important to know what the specific challenges and problems can be for your instrument, as only then can you begin to combat them. Notice your body and don't ignore any pain. After all, making music is supposed to be enjoyable and relaxing, and there should definitely not be any pain.
Make sure you warm up your body every day BEFORE you begin to play your instrument. Just the same as if you were about to do sport or other physical exercise. Stretching your muscles and mobilising joints should help to keep you in shape and reduce pain. There are some excellent warm up exercises for musicians available on the internet which will be easy to find with a simple search.
(Photo courtesy of https://www.thestrad.com/playing-and-teaching/11-stretching-exercises-for-musicians/27.article)
If you are still in any pain, contact your instrument teacher who should be able to help. And if your pain persists, don't worry, it's more common than you may think for musicians to have regular contact with a physiotherapist!
4. PERSONAL FOCUS
Music is, at its core, an expressive art. It comes from within. It is unique to each person. It represents emotions that cannot be expressed through words.
When you are feeling lost or stressed about your playing, remind yourself of why you started. Why did you choose that instrument? What did you love about it that made it stand out from all of the others? Focusing on your personal connection with music is the perfect way to re-light your spark.
And once your spark is re-lit, to stay motivated, focus on your own goals, your own dreams and ambitions. And above all, don't compare yourself to anyone else. This can be hard, especially if you are studying at a conservatoire where you are surrounded by people who are practising the same repertoire as you and working towards the same deadlines.
But it is really important to think about your own progress and your own deadlines, not those set by others. By doing this you will create your own self-confidence and your own self-motivation. And by having confidence and motivation coming from within, you will be able to make progress, both in your playing and in yourself, at a rate you may never have experienced before.
And that's pretty much it! Those are the 4 main things I have learnt over the past 9 months that have really helped me both musically and personally. It is important to create a balance, both in your playing and in life more generally. Without this balance it is easy to become stressed. But balance must come from within, and to do that you must first create space and time for yourself.
Good luck with your practice and future endeavours! And if you have any questions, comments or would just like to chat, please do not hesitate to leave a comment or get in touch with me via my contact page.