With how busy all of our lives get (and we're all busy) why not make the most out of every practice session? I often found myself not getting the results I wanted or not getting to everything in my practice sessions, but that all changed once I started asking myself these 7 questions.
1. How Do I Sound?
It took me way too long to pay attention to the most important thing about playing a musical instrument; my sound. I spent many years overly focused on flashy technique, range, learning new repertoire, and just playing right notes rather than being concerned with how I actually sounded playing all of it.
When walking away from a performance or geeking out about our favorite musicians, what is the thing we refer to most? "I love Chris Martin's playing; he sounds so good! You don’t say, "I love Chris Martin's ability to play in G# melodic minor with few to 0 mistakes." That’s ridiculous! Similarly, when we talk about the musicians or performances we don't like, sound is the first thing we comment on.
Whenever you're working on something, ask yourself "How Do I Sound?" Sound is something we will continue to develop, and it should remain the focal point in our practicing.
2. Do I Know This Already?
We try to create a positive environment by practicing the things we already know and can do well instead putting in the work on our weak areas.
Instead of using your valuable time "practicing" things you already know, try putting together a "Laundry List" of things to clean up. Start compiling a list of things that are limiting you (multiple tonguing scales at a quick tempo, a tricky soli line from your ensemble music, solo pieces, etc) and begin washing your dirty laundry!
This will not only improve your fundamentals, but will also expose yourself to more solos, etudes, excerpts!
Spend your time on the things you don't know rather than what you already know.
3. What Is The Fundamental Issue?
When presented with a new piece, it's easy to look at the big picture and say "I can't play this." Instead of making such a negative sweeping statement, ask yourself to identify the main underlying problem that’s making the piece so difficult. Is it high range? Low range? Flexibility?
By addressing the fundamental issue, you are spending time on only the skills that are holding you back, enabling you to more efficiently learn the piece and accomplish your goal.
4. Is This Productive?
If we’re honest with ourselves, we know whether or not what we’re practicing is productive or not. Practicing needs to be organized and structured to avoid getting off topic and wasting time.
Before starting each practice session, mark down what your goals and and how you intend to accomplish them and stay the course. If you find that you have a lot of things to work on, it might behoove you to map out this strategy for the week or longer.
The amount of hours you spend won't matter if it's not productive.
5. Have I Recorded Myself?
This is another practice protocol we KNOW will help us improve, but we could almost always do more of it. We hear ourselves so much in rehearsals, performances, and practice sessions that we become numb and overly accustomed to the sound quality we produce.
Recording ourselves and listening back exposes us to tendencies we may have missed because now we can hear ourselves from the other side of the bell. The sounds we surround ourselves with set the standard of what is normal and what is good, and we can often lose insight into what a higher standard is or what our goals really are.
What is it about recording ourselves that turns us away? Is it the extra time in listening after each take? Is it the hassle of remembering to bring a recording device? Or is it that we don't want to hear the faults in our playing?
This may be the toughest lesson to accept, but we must just get over it in order to really hear what's going on and address the issues.
6. Have I Listened To A Recording?
Once we start recording ourselves more regularly, it's crucial to compare our sound with our target sound. This doesn't mean we are striving to be just another copy of Chris Martin or whomever you chose as your musical muse, but rather to understand a piece's style, color, and meaning. Yes, there’s room for your own interpretation and musical expression, but it's very clear when someone doesn't know how the piece is supposed to go. You wouldn't want to show up to an audition and prove to the committee that you have no idea how an excerpt is supposed to sound, would you?
If you LOVE a particular recording of something, why not emulate it and give your practice purpose? Having multiple reference recordings gives us a wide palate of musical decisions to choose from and having the confidence to be flexible often creates the best results.
7. Am I Using The Right Tools?
There are many different tools (but physical and psychological) that assist us in our practice session and cause greater overall improvement.
Here are some reminders with questions
Am I in tune? (Use a tuner)
Am I in time? ( Use a metronome)
Am I playing this faster than I can handle right now? (Practice slower)
Did I take a good breath? (Breathe)
Do I have my reference recordings at hand? (Have multiple recordings for comparison)
Am I using my recording device? (record thyself)
A lot of the time, we assume that we’re playing in time, in tune, and just like the professionals, but incorporating these tools in the practice session can turn up surprising results.
I have far too many goals and aspirations to accomplish in my musical career - just as I'm sure you do - to practice inefficiently. Asking ourselves these 7 questions in the practice room will keep us honest and save us time.
Humble pie is an acquired taste, but I think I'm beginning to like it!
This article is based in part on Deshler's clinic "Prioritize Your Practice." For more information on booking Buddy Deshler and seeing the full clinic, click here.