Considering that it's the foundation of improvement, practicing can be stupidly hard. Many of my students came to me as self-proclaimed practice haters, and I can see why: they already have school and other extracurriculars, and chores, and they also want to hang out with their friends, and go on YouTube... Their parents might make them play for 45 minutes, which they use inefficiently; then they go to their next lesson sounding basically the same, and receive the same lecture from their teacher – not gratifying for anyone.
I’m sure I was often that kid, and though I was motivated in college, I still struggled with consistency. As a working adult, of course, it's even harder; I've found that it's easy to get into not-so-great routines.
But I'm lucky: working with kids has allowed me to appreciate the potential for practice to be fun. With this idea in mind, almost every one of my students has gone through a practicing makeover. Here's what's worked:
At the end of the lesson, we work together to come up with a set of clear tasks to accomplish for the week. The task is never simply to practice piece X: we get very specific, such as, “In measures 20–36, practice the string-crossings on the open strings, slowly and by memory. Then, add the left hand, starting slowly and gradually increasing the speed." When I ask my students what they think they could do with a passage in a week, they often come up with interesting and ambitious suggestions.
I reiterate two expectations: 1) They're to continuously check in with the list, and 2) They can play other music as they want to, but they're certainly not expected to: as long as they work toward the goals we’ve agreed on, I’ll be happy with their progress.
I remind them that they can still have flexibility: they may practice in 10-minute bursts, or skip a day if they're tired or busy. The goal is task mastery, not drudgery.
This way, there's no mystery to improvement: I won't expect them to sound perfect on a part of the piece we haven't been focusing on, and they'll never be at a loss about how to proceed. At the end of the week, they get the satisfaction of looking at their completed checklist of goals and knowing that they are truly "showing up” to our meetings.
I'm a firm believer in practicing what I preach, so here's how these principles of simplicity, accountability, and flexibility have worked for me.
1. Simplicity: Like my students, I make a list of reasonable goals for the week. Not "Play the entire thing perfectly every time”; I wouldn't assign that to a student, so I won't give it to myself, either. I like to work on small tasks that target different aspects of the music. For example:
Pick the 3 top-priority technical passages. Memorize them and play them at ½ speed.
Take these same technical passages and play them, by memory, with a variety of bowing patterns. Increase to ¾ speed.
Do one session of slow intonation work. What are the most difficult places to tune, and why?
So on and so forth. If the music is virtuosic, all this work might be done very slowly, and that's fine: the only thing that matters is that I am working consistently, which encourages me to continue on the path.
2. Accountability: This one's easy. Once I've decided on my goals, I write them down and refer to the list each day. I like to cross or check items off as they're accomplished.
3. Flexibility: Working through the list is also easy – until work gets busy or I get sick. I've found that making goals on a weekly basis, and not micromanaging any further, builds a good degree of flexibility into the schedule. I might have to accomplish several things every day, but I can give myself choices: if fast passagework needs to be done at some point, but my brain is foggy, I'll hit another task instead – maybe slow intonation or memorization practice, to wake myself up.
If I have a goal of practicing for a certain amount of time, I like to design this goal as a total amount of hours reached over several days – not, “I'll practice exactly 3 hours every day.” Sure, it's possible to make those daily hours happen if push comes to shove, but is it really necessary? And will it really be my best practice, or will it be practice merely for the sake of self-discipline? It's helpful for me to remember that even if my goal is to practice for a certain length of time, it's a result that is the ultimate aim. So if I can get the passages sounding good in an hour, and I'm tired, there's no need to keep going.
Here are some examples of goal-setting from my studio.
And here are some resources I've found interesting and inspiring.