The Magical Practice Session

by Hans Jensen

“For me music has a cleansing and a renewal. — always showing us that there is something much, much bigger than we are, and we always should try to reach up.

-Anna Sophie Mutter 

The magical practice session

The practice session is the magical place where we musicians have the best chance for making incredible improvements to all aspects related to playing our musical instrument.

Practicing is an art form that must be developed over time. As people get better at their instruments, they also improve their practice skills. The better the player, the better they know how to practice. Developing effective practice skills and applying them consistently every day will propel your instrumental growth trajectory to a measurably higher level of success.

The powerful short practice session: 

Since I started to play the cello later than my peers (I was 15 years old), I knew that I needed to practice a lot to catch up for all the missing years. During this period I was always looking for long sustained periods of practice time. Little did I know at the time that I was missing out on one of the great practice techniques: Short practice sessions!”    

Many years later...

I noticed one year that a student in my college class at Northwestern University was consistently more prepared for lessons and performance classes than many of his peers. I eventually asked him: What is your secret? 

This was his answer:

     I use time efficiently and utilize very short periods of time more frequently than the other students. Every day I look for short periods of practice time that otherwise would have gone to waste. 

How he found the time for the short session:

  • After lunch, and before orchestra rehearsals I go to a practice room for 15 min instead of hanging around and talking.
  • Right after orchestra, before going home for dinner, I get in 15 min of practice.
  • In between classes when there is a break I just go to the practice room for 10 to 20 min.
  • In the morning if there is an early class I go to the practice room even just for 15 min.
  • I regularly get in 10 to 15 min before and after chamber music rehearsals.
  • When there is no practice room available at school, I find a quiet corner in the building and do 15 min of mental practice.

     I used to practice only when I could find a longer time slot but after I realized how effective short practice periods can be when done in a very regular and effective way, I started to use that practice method by finding 3 to 4 short practice periods every day. Together these short sessions line up and powerful together. The real secret to that technique is to have a clear specific plan for each short session.

What to practice in a short practice session:

  • Select a specific passage: In a short practice session of 10 min, focus on one or two short passages. Don’t waste time trying to warm up by playing other things. Of course, if you are cold pay attention to your body and practice in a very intelligent way.
  • Select a specific skill: Spend 10 min on one skill. Always be aware about the end goal for what you are trying to do. People often get lost in the act of practicing instead of getting to the finish line. When working to improve a specific technique think about the smartest way to develop that skill over time. Try to visualize a successful way of connecting several short practice sessions towards mastering that one specific skill. Connecting several short practice sessions in your mind towards one goal will inspire you to use strategy when practicing and will also help take the negative aspect of always looking for instant gratification out of your behavioral patterns.
  • Select a few hard skills: Experiment with the power of the minute. Decide on several specific skills that you have problems with and spend one or two minutes on each skill. Be disciplined and creative in the way you spend those minutes. Have a vision of how you can develop that skill over the span of a year using one or two minutes every day. Have a plan in your mind of how to gradually get better and how the practicing of that skill should change as you get better at it.
  • Perform: Use a 15-min practice session as performance practice. Perform a whole movement of one of the pieces you are working on to test how well you know the piece. If an orchestra audition is coming up perform an imaginary first-round of excerpts. Make sure to record the performance and watch or listen to the performance later in the day. When listening back make sure to mark all the places that need improvement and plan for how to fix and improve those passages.

       The positive, productive and fun part of the short practice sessions is that it takes so little time that it is easy to retain focus throughout the session. Additionally, this special practice technique will help you become more strategic in your practicing in general and help you develop much better practice habits.

How to be focused when practicing

Another big mistake I repeated when I was a young student trying to practice well was trying to get into a very focused mindset. I struggled a lot searching for that illusive state of mind and I now know that I wasted an incredible amount of time looking at it the wrong way! A focused mind sets and accomplishes lots of specific small goals. After accomplishing a small goal, it is important to clear the mind even for a few seconds before deciding on and accomplishing the next goal. By combining many small goals together they can add up to a larger goal that may have seemed unattainable before!

Guarneri Quartet, Peter Wiley (Michael Tree - far right)

One story that I will never forget was told to me by the late Michael Tree, violist with the fantastic Guarneri String Quartet. Michael Tree told me that sometimes traveling all day and arriving at the concert hall only 30 minutes before the concert really taught him how in a very short amount of time he was able to get totally ready for the concert.

Michael Tree stressed that having been, in a way, forced into concentrating so intensely and realizing what he was able to accomplish, completely changed the way he would approach his regular practice.

Combining several practice sessions towards one goal 

The opposite of accomplishing several goals very fast is trying to accomplish one bigger goal over several practice sessions. Many goals require several daily practice sessions over several weeks or even months. For example, if you are trying to improve your sound quality or evenness and legato playing in your scale practice, dedicate twenty to twenty-five minutes each day toward that specific goal.

To read more detail about getting the most from your practice sessions, short and long, see PracticeMind (for String Players) or PracticeMind for Everyone