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Managing Your Daily Practice

Every musician knows how important it is to practice. It's drilled into our brain from the first time we pick up the instrument. For good reason; we all know that the path to mastery is consistent, focused practice. Problems arise when you want to practice but somehow it just doesn't get done. Or, you may be putting in the hours, but not getting any results. In effect either you aren't practicing as much as you like, or you aren't practicing properly.

The What and How

We are all told how important it is to practice but nobody ever goes into the 'what and how'. It's important to keep on track of what we want to do and what we are actually achieving. Make notes on what what you want to achieve but also what you've done. It's important to make daily notes so that when you sit down to practice, you don't have to sit and think about what to work on. You can continue from what were working on last session. This helps maintain your focus and may do more for your progress than anything else. 

Ready, Set...

I try to have everything ready to go as soon as I sit down. Don't put your instrument away if you don't have to. Have a corner of your space just dedicated to your practice. Have all of the materials out on your music stand ready to go. Have all materials that you may need right there ready to use: your metronome (or drum machine), your computer (if you use it), extra parts, all reference materials and your practice schedule.

The List

I'm going to summarize with a list of things that you should be doing everyday. These exercises should only take a small amount of time. That way, even on your busiest day, there is the chance that you will still get in some quality practice time. I've listed the name of the exercise and the amount of time allotted to that particular exercise.
  1. The warm-up (about 1 minute): warm ups are an extremely important part of your practice sessions but very few people do them consistently. Most vocalists know how important it is to warm up but instrumentalists are bad for not doing these. Warm ups should be simple. They should be something that is relatively easy to do (i.e. not complicated, too fast or involving really hard technique). They should be done slowly and deliberately. For example, if you're an instrumentalist, try exercises that include all of the fingers. Start at a point that is easy to execute and then gradually go higher or harder. It's all about warming up your fingers (or vocals) and getting focused. Like the beginning of a yoga session; you're trying to get into the right frame of mind. It's about shutting everything else down, forgetting about all of the days' problems and focusing on the music.
  2. Technique (5 minutes): this would include any technical exercises written specifically for your instrument. This would include picking. bowing, tonguing and fingering exercises. It may also include working on your intervals (3rds, octaves), arpeggios, and awkward leaps. It may also include such things as articulations, dynamics and rhythms.
  3. Chords (5 minutes): these are exercises that would include adding more chords to your repertoire or learning to use the ones you know more effectively. That means learning the new chord, different fingerings (or inversions) and and the theory behind it (it's function and uses). It would also include chord progressions. Learning chord progressions used in various musical styles but also how to play the chords in that style. An integral part of learning chords is learning to comp. This means different things in different styles. These exercises should be part of every players practice regimen, not just rhythm section players.
  4. Scales (5 minutes): everybody know how important it is to learn your scales. It's important that you don't just 'go through the motions'; don't spend all of your time just going up and down through your scales. Learn how to use them. Go through different patterns and doing ear training to learn them inside and out. Learning how to effectively use a couple of scales (and chords) is much more important than learning a ton of scales (and chords) and not knowing what to do with them.
  5. Improv/writing (10 minutes): I usually put improvisation and writing together when it comes to short practice sessions. I'll work on whatever is the most important at the time. This is what I call the application of theory. I use the chords, scales, licks, cliches or whatever I've learned that week and put it into actual practice. It's good to try ideas in a variety of keys, tempos, and styles. It easy to get carried away with this portion. If you're short on time, make sure  you go over the relevant material and not spend half an hour 'jamming'...which is wonderful when you have the extra time!
  6. Song/repertoire (10 minutes): this is learning new songs/material and reviewing your song list. Too many musicians learn tunes but don't review them on a regular basis. Reviewing songs regularly gets them into your fingers and helps in improvising and writing because the changes and parts are pretty much ingrained into your psyche. By organizing the way you learn songs and memorize them (we'll go over this in a future post), your repertoire can grow in no time at all. If you're a jazz or session musician, having a huge repertoire is paramount.
If you only have time for a short session, then these are good guidelines to get it all done in about half an hour. If you have more time, you can spend more time on the individual exercises. If you're learning a new tune for example, you may want to spend a whole session just going through the chord changes. Then you can use the next session going through the melody or bass line.

Pace Yourself

It's better to not spend too much time on one exercise or one practice session. There is a point of diminishing returns when you've repeatedly gone over the same material. It's better to spend less time and be completely focused. If you have extra time, try breaking up your practice schedule into smaller sessions*. This gives your brain some time to assimilate all of the information that you've thrown at it.  

*There are exceptions to this...one being getting ready for a show. To prepare you want to go through the entire set in one session to make sure that everything flows.


Just Do It

Try to get it into your brain that your practice sessions don't have to be a long drawn out affair. It's great when you have the time to sit down and get right into it but don't put off practicing just because you don't have a spare hour. If you have a spare 15 or 20, that may be enough to get in a great practice. Remember to have the list in front of you and go through all of the exercises. Don't spend too much time on any one exercise. Sure it's more fun to get right into each exercise but you may not always have that time. This way you can still get something done. It takes away an excuse and allows you to keep motivated and on course without stressing about losing days. It makes it easier to remember what you've done, what  you're supposed to work on, and what needs work. Most of all, you'll see better results because you are practicing more often, you're working on essential skills everyday, and you're staying focused.

Master your instrument, master the music, and then forget all that crap and just play. - Charlie Parker