Four Simple Ways to Make the Most of Your Practice Session

by Joshua Roman

I’m gearing up for the next trip as my 3 week stint at home in NYC comes to a close. It’s been nice to have so much time in one spot, especially as I’m putting the final touches on my new(ish) apartment space and getting my taxes out of the way. I love to use my time at home to prepare for upcoming performances, so that I can be present as much as possible while traveling. Lately I’ve been thinking about how to best use the practice time I have, whether at home or on the road, and some basic principles came to mind. I think they’re worth sharing. In fact, some of these principles are applicable to many tasks, pursuits, or other focus and skill-dependent activities – like writing a blog post!

Joshua Roman by Hayley Young 11(Joshua Roman. Photo credit: Hayley Young)

1. Have a clear goal.

This is something that I’ve learned over the years, and I wish there were more emphasis placed on it when we are developing our practice habits. When you pick up your instrument, make sure you already know what you want to accomplish, and how much time you have to do it. Hours spent in the practice room are not the signifier of progress. Playing with the vague intent to generally “get better” is not as effective as having a basic plan to follow, and it’s better to change that goal mid-way through than have no goal at all. This goal can be as detailed as nailing a particular passage, or learning a certain amount of music and detail (I find this works best when you’ve studied the score beforehand with no instrument) or it can be a less tangible but still important goal, like setting aside time to:

2. Explore.

While task-oriented practicing is effective in achieving specific goals, music is also about exploring and finding your voice. New techniques, new sounds, sometimes even entirely new approaches or styles are waiting to be discovered if we would just experiment a little. I like to explore as part of my warm-up; mixing scales with little fragments of music I like, often adding some improv and loosely structured goofing-off. And by loosely structured, I really just mean setting a time limit so that I don’t neglect the more schedule-dependent results that I need to achieve. It’s nice to have time for this at the end of practicing, as well. This practice technique is particularly fun to throw into rehearsals. 🙂

3. Take breaks.

Breaks are an incredibly important part of practicing. Sometimes it feels like I get into a zone, and things just click. Often, after a practice session where I stay in that zone for too long, I find I didn’t really do anything once I got there other than just repeat things or run them for my own pleasure. That’s also important, but in terms of the lasting effects of any particular session, science and anecdotal evidence have shown us that letting the brain rest in between exercises (muscular or mental) increases our ability to retain the progress we’ve made. How many breaks you should take depends on the nature of what you’re practicing and way it fits into your day. I like to never play for more than 50 consecutive minutes, and if I’m working on something particularly gnarly or have a fast-approaching deadline, I cut that down to 30 minutes max. It might seem counter-intuitive, but in the end I get more out of the time I use and my muscles feel better as well. You can still do intense sessions; if I have a limited amount of time within the day to get things done I might do 50 min on, 10 min off for a few hours. I use a timer to help manage this, and generally stop right when it goes off unless I’m within one or two minutes from finishing whatever I’m working on at the moment. The timer I use is on my phone, which leads me to the next very important point:

4. Turn off distractions.

Phones have airplane mode, but mine might as well be called “practice mode”. It’s very important to make sure your mind is with you when you are practicing. This is the time you are developing the habits on which you will rely in performance, and the ability to focus is paramount. Shut the computer, hide the iPad, and turn off notifications on all of your devices. If you’re really concerned about missing an important message, many devices have features that will let you control just who can reach you at certain times. Otherwise, FOMO is not an excuse! You can check in on Snapchat and Facebook when the timer goes off; you’ll have to grab the phone to stop the timer anyway. For random ‘to do’s’ and inspirational thoughts that jump into your mind, set a pen and paper next to you to catch those items, and move on quickly. Personally, I do not consider the vibrate or silent mode extreme enough – airplane mode is the way to go.

One exception to this: I do enjoy experimenting with distraction sometimes, and think it’s worth it as a way to test your level of focus. I grew up in a house full of practicing, talking, and sometimes yelling (four kids, what do you expect?). Tuning out the noises around me was a necessity, and in some ways I’ve found that a busy practice environment can sharpen your focus if you approach it with the right attitude. Now, I will sometimes turn on the television and/or radio in my hotel room, and practice “against” it. I always feel good when I realize I have no clue what show is on even though it’s right in front of me. On the other end of the spectrum, I also like to practice with a sleep mask, and even earplugs, just to force myself to focus on the ear/mind/body connection.

Joshua Roman by Hayley Young 1There are many elements to a good practice session, and everyone has their own unique personality which influences the nuances of their practice habits. What to practice, how much to practice, and when to practice are all important questions, and maintaining enough objectivity to know whether your practice technique is effective can be tough. I used to think I practiced best at night, but eventually realized that was just when I liked playing the most, because physical technique somehow gets easier for me later in the day. However, my best and longest lasting results currently come from first-thing-after-I-wake-up practicing. Ugh. Not a fun discovery. Sometimes that just means I take more naps, though…

(Joshua Roman. Photo credit: Hayley Young)

I strongly recommend that no matter how advanced you are, or happy with your routine, you change it up every once in a while to see what you might be missing. There’s always another way to look at things, and often we get comfortable with “good enough”, when “great” is just around the corner, waiting for us to look up and adjust our path.

These four simple tips are ways you can help bring the best attention to your practicing, whatever stage of a routine you may be in at the moment. Soon, I’ll be posting a few more specific thoughts on practicing in the 21st century. We may not be able to ask Brahms or Bach about fingerings, but we have a few tools of which they might well have been envious!

Miles Davis – Kind of Blue (full album)
John Cage – “Dream” from
Maurizio Grandinetti – Cage & Dowland: Equivoci
Ayub Ogada – En Mana Kuoyo (full album)