Focus and intensity are key components to staying alert while practicing so you can meet your musical goals. Though many musicians want to practice for hours on end, it’s nearly impossible to remain focused for such a long amount of time.
According to Dianne Dukette and David Cornish in their 2009 book The Essential 20: Twenty Components of an Excellent Health Care Team, most teenagers and adults are unable to sustain attention on one thing for more than about 20 minutes at a time. They can, however, choose repeatedly to re-focus on the same thing.
For musicians trying to learn new skills or master a particularly difficult section of a song, I think that 20 minutes actually seems a bit too long. Try no more than 5 to 10 minutes at a time. Even 1 to 2 minutes can be useful if you really need to zero in on something specific.
To keep your level of intensity high while you’re playing your instrument, try these 6 steps.
Have an ending time for your practice session. Whether it’s 10 minutes or 2 hours, make sure you know how much time you’ll have. You’ll get a lot more done and be more focused if your practice time isn’t open-ended.
Decide on 3 main goals for your music today. This could be 3 sections of one song. Or, a scale, an exercise, and 1 section of your song. Do NOT start playing until you know what you’re trying to accomplish.
Write down those goals you just decided on. Seeing these details in print makes it seem more real. Use your Practice Planner, a piece of paper, your smartphone, your calendar, or whatever else you’ve got. Just be sure to write down today’s goals.
After you’ve warmed up, start with the goal that you most want to avoid or that scares you a bit. Tell yourself that you WILL accomplish this goal right now. Tell yourself that this goal is important to you, that you’re up to the challenge, and that this is great use of your time.
Put on a timer. Give yourself a specific amount of time to accomplish the first goal. Set the timer, and turn it so you cannot see it while you’re practicing.
Remember, for today you may not be able to play that music the way you hear it in your dreams. But, you can definitely work out the technical details and play it accurately at a very slow tempo. This can be accomplished much more quickly than you imagine, and having the timer on will push you to intense levels of focus and to get the job done.
Using a timer allows you to forget about the clock. Without a timer on, many musicians are tempted to look up at the clock to see how long they’ve been working on something. This gets you out of your focused zone. Forget all about time and intensely focus on the matter at hand. When the timer goes off, you’re done with this item for today.
Each time you complete an item on your goal list, write down what you accomplished, your metronome setting for today, and what still needs improvement. Tomorrow, seeing these notes will get you focused immediately.
PUTTING THESE STEPS TO WORK:
Try these 6 steps right now. Even if you’re not going to practice immediately, schedule your next practice session (with a specific start time and end time) and write down what the goals for that practice session will be.
I was recently reminded of the power of our connected, online world when I ran across a couple mentions of me and one of my books from late 2011. Without you even knowing it, other people might be uploading information about you and your music to their websites, blogs, and social media sites.
It’s wonderful to think that these other people care enough about you to take the time to do this. You just might be able to reach a whole lot of people from their network who aren’t in your network!
Here is a website I didn’t even know existed until they reviewed my Musician’s Practice Planner book for a jazz audience: JazzPracticeIdeas.com.
On the Grammy website, a former student of mine (who is now a Grammy-winning singer, composer, bassist, and cedar flutist) mentioned me while discussing the importance of mentors for musicians.
How are you being talked about online? Have you had any particularly positive or negative experiences from your name or your music being included in an online discussion?
We all see new technologies being introduced every day. Some are embraced. Some are discarded. But, there’s no doubt that musicians lives are being affected by these technologies.
I’m not talking about the reputed demise of the music industry, sagging sales of recorded music, and plunging revenues for record companies. The truth is that only a tiny sliver of musicians were ever part of those revenues anyway.
I’m talking about the vast majority of musicians – the 99%, if you will – who play for fun or for some part-time income. The funny thing is, this even describes most full-time professional musicians. Most of them make only part of their living from performing and recording. They teach and do other activities to keep their music careers going.
For this 99% technology is definitely making life easier. Whether you’re a weekend warrior or a music professional, here are three ways you can use technology to make your life better right now:
Access Gig Materials Electronically
Need to learn a song you’ve never heard before? Go to YouTube, Rhapsody, or any one of hundreds of other websites to listen to multiple versions of the song. Doesn’t matter if it’s rock, jazz, or classical. There’s a recording somewhere.
Want to leave your sheet music at home? More and more musicians are loading their sheet music onto their tablet computers. I’m seeing more and more iPads at performances, and this trend will only rise over time. It’s a lot easier carrying one iPad than three binders or fake books worth of charts to a performance. I was at a club listening to a jazz group recently. The room was full of swing dancers, and one of the dancers requested a song. The band knew the song, but the singer didn’t know the lyrics. On stage, in front of the audience, he pulled up the lyrics on his iPad and sang the song. Crisis averted.
Learn Faster than Any Previous Generation in Human History
The number of learning technologies available to musicians today is staggering. I mentioned YouTube above, and there are probably more instructional videos uploaded to that site daily than you would have time to watch in the next decade. Some of these videos are clearly terrible, and some even have incorrect or incomplete information. However, there are thousands of terrific videos of thoughtful musicians who will show you how to play whatever you need to learn.
Accompaniment software and musician apps give you tremendous opportunities to learn and assess your progress. Smart Music, Band in a Box, and many other applications are just waiting for you to make them part of your daily practice routine. You can slow down accompaniment tracks, change keys, and see which notes you missed – all from the comfort of your own home.
And, you can record yourself playing and listen back to how you sound with handheld digital recorders or smartphones. Plus, there are so many software tools available for recording and editing (such as ProTools, GarageBand, and Audacity) that you can always know exactly how you sound. One hundred years ago, no musicians had this capability. You can do this daily. Take advantage of it.
Communicate to the Entire World
Online forums allow you to get feedback and advice from your peers. Skype lets you take a lesson from a master teacher anywhere on earth. Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and your very own blog (like this one!) give you the means to communicate anything about your music to musicians and potential audience members instantly.
Find musicians to play with, update the world on your musical progress, invite people to your next performance, promote your recordings. Think about this: I was hired for my first professional gig in 1980 and taught my first lesson in 1985. What did musicians at that time have to go through to communicate to a worldwide audience? You can reach the entire world before your morning cup of coffee is done brewing.
Whether it’s electronic music materials, state-of-the-art learning systems, or advanced communications, it’s time for all musicians to embrace technologies and change their lives for the better.
Like most other musicians, I spent most of my life thinking that how much practicing I did directly impacted how much forward progress I made as a musician. I only wanted to practice when I had at least 2 hours of uninterrupted time for playing. I was a slave to this concept.
This was fine when I was a music major in college, devoting every waking hour to learning to play, surrounded by hundreds of other musicians who were just as devoted, taking weekly lessons and playing constantly. And, the idea of practicing for hours a day is drilled into you in music school.
But, several changes in my life have forced me to rethink my devotion to long practice sessions. And, as it turns out, scientific evidence just might support the notion that short practice sessions are better for us anyway.
First, these changes:
My Life Got Busier: I no longer had 2 hours in a row to practice. I could probably get in 2 hours total during a day, but there were too many demands on my time to have long, uninterrupted hours available for practicing. I suspect your life is like this too.
Being Busy Made Me Frustrated: Since I was a slave to the concept of long practice sessions, and since I was unable to carve out the time for these long practice sessions in my life, I got really frustrated. And, I stopped practicing. Not completely, but enough to feel that I was neglecting my instrument and stopping myself from improving the way I wanted to improve. Being frustrated is not a good state of mind for having productive practice sessions.
A Book Woke Me Up: I read a remarkable book, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, several years ago. This book gives readers a series of exercises to complete. These exercises reveal truths about your life – or more directly, they reveal what truths you create as you interpret your artistic life. My own frustration with my use of time kept coming up over and over again. That’s when I had a very big breakthrough: I didn’t have to be a slave to this notion that only hours of practicing counted as “real” practicing.
I could play music for 30 minutes. 15 minutes. Even 5 minutes. I could make progress and make good use of my time in any circumstance. No matter how little time I felt I had, it was still worthwhile – even necessary – to spend that little bit of time improving my playing.
What a revelation this was!
And, as it turns out, the scientific evidence seems to be showing that shorter practice sessions are more effective anyway.
The latest scientific research into skill acquisition and long-term memory enhancement is showing that we humans do best with short, highly focused (evenly emotionally charged) tasks that force us to master very specific skills.
Emotion Creates Long-term Memory: Larry Cahill, professor of Neurobiology and Behavior at University of California, Irvine, has discovered in his research on memory that strong emotional reactions are the key to permanently implanting long-term memories. If we think of learning our instruments as a long series of specific muscle memories, and if we look at memorizing songs as a long series of mental memories, then this research seems to say that our playing needs to be emotionally charged. One way to do this is to develop a level of focus so intense that the work you do while playing your instrument feels like the most important work you could possibly be doing.
Intensity Enhances Learning: Psychologist and pianist Margret Elson, in her book Passionate Practice, uses the term “intensity” for this level of focus. She puts it this way: “Repetition or intensity can each generate learning. What if we harnessed both repetition and intensity to the learning process? We would be in a much better position to learn efficiently and permanently…”
Efficient and permanent. Sounds good to me.
So, the question is: How long can you actually sustain this intense concentration and emotion that will truly help you push the musical information into your long-term memory? I don’t know about you, but there’s no way I can do that for hours at a time.
I think we can only do this for minutes at a time. I’ll explore ways to create this intensity in a future blog post.
Are you passionate about the music you’re playing? If not, it’s probably pretty difficult to get excited about practicing and doing all the hard work needed to perform well.
There are plenty of situations in life that do not contain passion. Just think of commuting to work or school, running errands, doing housework, and all the other mundane but necessary tasks of living your life. Don’t make the mistake of leaving the passion out of your music!
Here are a few tips for putting passion into your playing:
1. Choose to perform music that you truly like. Listen to recordings before you tackle something new. Hearing this music should inspire you and make you want to play your instrument.
2. Tell a story with your music. If you infuse plot and characters into the music you play, it’s a lot more interesting for you and for your audience. Stories contain emotions and plot twists that give music the extra spark it needs.
3. Pick a venue where you want to play. When you take control of where and when you will be performing, it’s a lot more interesting to learn new music–and it’s easier to feel passionate about the outcome.
4. Copy the masters. Try to play exactly like an artist you admire. Copying their sound and technique can inspire you to go beyond your usual techniques.
5. Play when you’re angry. Doing this usually brings out a whole new interpretation of the music for most players. It’s almost like someone else is playing your instrument.
Do whatever it takes to put the passion into your playing!
It’s interesting to rehearse without playing the beginnings of any of the pieces your ensemble is working on. This is counter-intuitive for most people, but it opens up the group to thinking about their music in a new way. Just because the default mode of musicians is to start at the beginning doesn’t mean that starting at the beginning is the best plan!
The real secret to efficient rehearsing is to go through the music section by section. Very few groups do this as a normal part of their rehearsing. But, this is a crucial process if you are to have successful performances.
Daniel Levitin, in his extraordinary book This Is Your Brain on Music, writes, “Most musicians cannot start playing a piece of music they know at any arbitrary location; musicians learn music according to a hierarchical phrase structure. Groups of notes form units of practice, these smaller units are combined into larger units, and ultimately into phrases; phrases are combined into structures such as verses and choruses or movements, and ultimately everything is strung together as a musical piece.”
Many musicians have an understanding of this process but still do not run their rehearsals using the principle of putting together sections. A lot of rehearsals are simply run-throughs of the music. When learning a piece, starting at the beginning of a song and playing it through to the end is no more useful for a group in rehearsal than it is for a solo musician in the practice room.
Instead, the trick is to run sections of a piece and work out any of the kinks that exist for each section. Then, rehearse the transitions between the sections. Only when this process is complete does it make sense to run an entire piece–though going through the whole piece is probably not that important at the first rehearsal if the group will be getting together for multiple rehearsals.
Try this technique at your next rehearsal. Make each section perfect. Then, make the transitions perfect. Finally, string together multiple sections and play through them.
Do you ever feel that you’re practicing only one or two items and feel guilty for neglecting others? Most of us have experienced these feelings. We know we should be more balanced in our practicing–even as we play through the fun music on our practice list.
The Musician’s Practice Planner can help you avoid these negative feelings by organizing your practicing into useful categories. If you make sure you have at least one item in each practice category, you can rely on the Practice Planner to give you your to-do list.
By following the categories in order–Scales & Arpeggios first, Exercises & Etudes second, Repertoire third, etc.–you can make sure your practicing is balanced. More importantly, you relieve yourself of any feelings of guilt that result from skipping the less exciting parts of your practicing.
When you focus on your scales and exercises before you go through the songs or pieces your really want to practice, you will be thoroughly warmed up and ready to play at your best when you get to your songs. Going through this process every time you practice will help you learn faster.
The trick is to make sure there’s something written in every category of your Musician’s Practice Planner. You and your teacher can make this a goal at every lesson.
Stay balanced and you’ll make more progress!
A performer walks on stage to start a concert. They seem uncomfortable, maybe even a bit scared. They look down at the floor as they enter.
How will the audience react to this musician? Will they be enthusiastic and eager to listen to the performance?
In this situation, audiences usually feel embarrassed and worried that they will be hearing a timid, difficult performance. Audiences do not want to feel this way–whether they’ve paid top dollar for great seats at an expensive venue or they’re at a free children’s recital.
Audiences want to be led by the musicians on stage. They want to feel comfortable and comforted. If you’re the musician about to start the performance, you owe it to yourself and to your audience to enter the stage in such a way that everyone realizes they’re in for something special.
I was at a public speaking workshop put on by Ovson Communications recently, and this point was hammered home. Public speaking and performing music have a lot in common. In both cases there is someone on stage leading an audience. The audience’s expectations are high, and it’s up to the person on stage to take control of the room.
At this workshop, the leaders demonstrated various uses of body language that turn off audiences when a performer enters the stage: stooped shoulders, staring at the floor, walking slowly, frowning. Then, they showed how to engage the audience when entering: shoulders back, walking purposefully, smiling, looking individual audience members in the eye.
Then, each of us participating in the workshop got to practice taking the stage. It is amazing how different it feels when you purposefully take control of the stage and the audience. I felt more confident and more ready to speak to the audience.
Controlling the stage is something you can practice at home. If you’ve got a performance coming up, treat your practice room like the stage. Leave the practice room for a couple minutes. Then, when you’re ready to do a performance runthrough, re-enter your practice space–just as you would if you were in front of an audience.
Take your time before you start playing. Visualize your audience beineager to hear you play. Feel the confidence pouring out of you.
When you take the stage confidently, you will feel more calm, relaxed, and ready to perform!
In your Musician’s Practice Planner, in addition to the weekly practice plan, it’s important for music students to write down their reward and their risk for meeting the practice goals for the week. This is an excellent way to create motivation and forward momentum in achieving goals for music lessons and performances.
Here’s how it works:
First, set up a Reward for meeting your weekly goals. The reward can be anything positive that you’ll get for following through with your plan. The reward can be big or small, but it should be something you want.
Next, create a Risk for NOT meeting your practice goals. Your risk is your anti-reward. It is something you will give up or lose if you do not carry out your weekly plan.
Using risk as an incentive is one of the great secrets of motivation experts. If you create a plan for achieving goals, ask yourself this question:
What am I risking if I do not meet my plan?
If you risk nothing, what is your incentive to carry out the plan? Risk is an essential component of the SMART Goals system, which says that your goal itself should have some element of risk in it. This usually means that your goal is something new that will take you slightly out of your comfort zone.
Using risk as an anti-reward is another wise use of the concept, and this type of risk will make you hungry to achieve your goals.
Be sure to put both your Reward and your Risk in writing. And, let other people know what you have chosen as your incentives. These people can help hold you accountable and encourage you to meet your goals. They will want you to earn your reward, not suffer from your anti-reward!
There is a lot of advice for music students to get the most from their music lessons in the Music Lessons blog archive here on the Molto Music site. Today’s post adds one more tip:
Always leave today’s music lesson with your next lesson scheduled.
For many students, lessons are scheduled weekly at exactly the same time. If you’ve set up your music lessons on a regular schedule, congratulations! You will get regular feedback, advice, and assignments from your music teacher. Regular lessons give you the best opportunity to make the most progress in the shortest time possible.
There are many music students–especially adult musicians–who do not adhere to a regular lesson schedule. Some of these students are highly motivated and will practice hard between lessons to make a lot of progress.
However, a lot of students who take lessons only occasionally don’t have a great deal of motivation between lessons. Knowing that they don’t have to check in with their teacher any time soon, they put practicing on the back burner.
If this describes you, today’s blog post is tailor made for your situation. You absolutely, positively must have your next lesson on the calendar before you leave your music teacher’s studio at the end of your current lesson. Knowing when the next lesson will happen gives you a deadline. Deadlines lead to motivation. Motivation leads to practicing. Practicing leads to accomplishment.
It’s that simple. You always need a deadline to keep yourself on pace to accomplish your goals. Always having your next lesson scheduled will give you that deadline!