Many students and parents ask for guidance on practice, often asking about how many days in a week and how many minutes each day someone should practice. While setting aside time is an important aspect to regular practice, what we do while practicing is much more important than the amount of time spent with your instrument. This is true for any skill we want to improve. Breaking down practice time into meaningful work is what gets you closer to your goal and why we spend so much money on great coaches, trainers and teachers.
I often find myself turning lessons into mini practice sessions for students. Good practice skills are a must not only for musicians but for all working professionals. Drills can be tedious, though, so I make sure to explain why I ask them to do certain activities in the lesson. This way they understand that what I am asking them to do is not a punishment for a mistake but an implemented plan of attack to ensure they do not continue to make the mistake.
I first explain to students that making mistakes is most often done because they are trying to go too fast. It is unfair to expect their brain to send information down to the fingers quickly and smoothly AND for the fingers to follow those instructions if the commands are sent too fast. We must slow everything down to get the activity down just right. Only after playing each note correctly with no mistakes can the fingers possibly start to perform more quickly.
We play slowly so that we can mindfully play perfectly. Shrugging off mistakes and moving on to get to the end of a song so you can check practicing off your list is a waste of valuable practice time. Playing perfectly takes patience and understanding (since mistakes WILL happen as we learn). I like to turn this part of practice into a game. I tell my students to count out 5-6 colorful fuzzy balls I keep next to the piano. We lay them out on the piano and I tell them each time they play a certain passa
ge without any mistakes, they can move one ball to the other side of the piano. We add more passages to the practice session when all the fuzzies have been moved over. I am always amazed how much more focused a student is when they play this way. They are suddenly much more motivated and can watch their progress rather than just listen to it.
The third aspect of practice I often talk to my students about is using intent to stay focused. I tell my students to play with the intention of memorizing the song. I only sometimes actually request a student to memorize a piece (for example if they are playing for competition) but the act of trying to memorize a song helps students stay focused on the task at hand. They close their eyes and play the song to see which parts they are not sure of then sneak a peak to see the next note. This act of checking in to see how well a piece is learned is a great way to stay focused while practicing.
All of these techniques are helpful but in measured doses. Remember that the brain gets tired and cramming is not helpful. Set aside the time to practice and stick to that schedule. Often when we get frustrated and stop seeing progress, a rest and a good nights' sleep will do wonders. Regular practice often reaps its benefit only after a rest. When the mind and fingers are fresh, you will find all the hard work paid off and you are playing far better than your last practice session (your teacher will notice too!).