Life is busy! There’s always an unanswered email, or a stack of dirty dishes, or a bit of household DIY that needs attending to. Making time for your instrument can be tough, especially if you fall into the trap of psychologically grouping it with the rest of the chores that need to be done, rather than what it should be – a pleasurable, creative and satisfying activity, and an opportunity for self-improvement.
Getting yourself in the right headspace to practice is almost an art in itself, and any professional musician will tell you how much your frame of mind affects your playing. That being said, let’s dive into some tips I’ve gathered along the years that could just help you start enjoying your instrument even more.
Some things in life are impossible to control and may affect your enthusiasm about practicing, whether it’s having a bad day at work or getting a cold. However, some things are definitely within your control, so why not stack the odds of having a good practice session in your favor?
The first thing you can control is your environment. Try to make your practice area somewhere that is free of distractions – log out of social media, turn your phone onto silent and let your family or housemates know that you’ll be busy. Less obviously, it’s also important to keep your practice area free of clutter. You might not feel that a bit of mess is affecting you, but subconsciously it could well be adding to your stress levels and preventing you from focusing fully. A plant on your desk or windowsill can also be a nice touch to help get into that Zen bubble.
The second thing to prepare is your instrument. You want to be excited about picking it up and playing, and this means doing some basic maintenance now and again. Firstly and most importantly, make sure you have some reasonably new strings on. Depending on how often you play and what kind of strings you use, how often you need to change them will vary hugely. But when you notice a dull, lifeless tone, severe tuning issues and a horrible, tacky feel then it’s time to treat yourself to a new set. The feeling of a sticky, rusty string rubbing on your metal fingerpick is so distressing that it’s hard to even properly put into words – save yourself this torture and always have a few spare sets in your case ready to go!
Other small instrument maintenance jobs include wiping the sweat and grime off the neck and arm rest after each practice, occasionally checking the tension of the head, using a fine pencil to draw a tiny bit of graphite into the nut slots (if you’re having tuning issues), and every year or so getting your instrument properly set up at a good music shop. Having your instrument feeling and sounding great will make you look forward to picking it up!
How many times have you heard fellow musicians smugly drop into conversation the number of hours they practice each day? If you’re anything like me, quite a few. But have you ever stopped to think how bizarre it is to use time as a measure of productivity? Imagine if your boss at work asked for a progress update on a report that’s due tomorrow and you replied: “It’s going great! I’ve done two hours a night, every night, for a week!” Your boss doesn’t care how long you’ve spent on it. They care about the quality of the content. Quite simply, it doesn’t matter how long you spend playing – it matters what you achieve.
Having a productive practice comes down to having a set of goals that you want to accomplish. These could include, for instance, learning a scale in a new position, working with a metronome to improve the timing of a certain passage, learning a new tune, or focusing on a specific technique like pull-offs. Try keeping a little notepad with you so you can jot down what you want to work on when you start practicing. This will also help you keep track of progress if, for example, you’re working through all the modes, or gradually increasing the tempo at which you play a piece.
Ironically, forgetting about practice time will often mean that you end up playing for much longer, with far less mental fatigue. By saying to yourself “Now I have to play for an hour” you’ve turned practicing into a chore. You’ll be watching the clock, and you’ll put your instrument down as soon as the hour rolls round. By focusing on specific tasks you’ll have more fun, be more productive and finish your session with a sense of achievement. And you’ll often find yourself playing for longer to finish your goals for the day. In fact, when your practice session ends, you’ll probably already be looking forward to playing tomorrow.
Whether you’re an absolute beginner or a seasoned professional, you should be aiming to play every day (although obviously a beginner and professional would probably play for very different lengths of time). Realistically, this may not always be possible – sometimes life just gets in the way – but try to make music practice part of your daily routine. This is important because of the way our brains process information.
When we sleep, new neural pathways formed in our brains during the day are cemented and strengthened. New information and motor skills are embedded in this way, which is why you will find spending 20 minutes on a new piece three days in a row much more productive than spending an hour on it in a single day. You’ve probably noticed that some days, after going through the same piece again and again, you seem to hit a “wall” and can’t make any more progress. Yet you come back the next day, and your fingers now seem to know where to go! Although it can be frustrating, this is why you have to accept that “little and often” is much more productive than splurging all your practice time on one day a week.
Getting into habits sounds boring, but it’s actually a great way to prepare yourself psychologically for a successful practice session. My own “warm-up” starts a little while before I even pick up the banjo. I’ll make a cup of tea or coffee and put on some music (preferably a piece by a player I admire) while doing some shoulder and arm stretches to loosen up. This has two effects – firstly, I’m listening to and absorbing the music, which makes me excited to pick up my instrument and start making some of my own. Secondly, I’m making sure that I don’t hurt myself or develop repetitive strain injury by stretching and warming up my muscles and tendons.
It’s outside the scope of this article to go into specifics about what warm-up exercises you should do, but in general keep the exercises easy and slow, and focus on relaxing your muscles and letting go of any strain in your hands, arms and shoulders. Although I said earlier that time isn’t important when practicing, you should try to match your warm-up length to roughly how long you expect to play. Doing a 15-minute warm up is crazy if you’re only planning to play for 20 minutes afterwards, but it could be absolutely vital if you’re going to play for 2 hours. Always listen to your body, and take a break if it hurts. Never play through the pain.
I hope you’ll find this advice useful and will be able to incorporate it into your day-to-day life. Ultimately, you should try to be aware of your own mental state and home in on the habits and routines that bring you the most success. Playing music is one of the most deeply satisfying experiences there is, and practicing is a vital part of being the best musician you can be. Good luck – and have fun!
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