“Practice makes perfect” is without doubt the most commonly used phrase about practising, and it’s certainly true… but how do you practise? And how do you go about making sure that it is your practice that is perfect?
First of all, you need to be in right frame of mind for practising. This means looking forward to it, and giving yourself reasons to look forward to it. This can be something very simple – loving the sound of your instrument; having quality, protected time alone; enjoying having something to think about other than everyday tasks; learning to play a piece of music which you love; or just giving in to the feeling that making music gives you. Knowing that practising will be changing the way in which you feel and think, even in a small way, should bring about enough positive thoughts to get you into your practice room.
You also need to prepare for practice. Where do you practise? Is it a separate room from where your work is? Is it a welcoming place to be? Is it free from distractions (e.g. computer, TV)? Is there enough light? The phrase “a tidy house is a tidy mind” is worth remembering. And when do you practise? Research on professional musicians has shown that the optimum time for perfecting technical work is first thing in the morning – this not only sets you up for the day, but enables both mind and body (and muscle memory is a vital part of music making) to assimilate technique with ease. Another good time is when you get back home from work (or school) – get out of your work clothes, make yourself a cup of tea, and then go into your practice space, enjoying being a musician.
When we make music, we think and act differently from in any other activity. Time operates in a different continuum, and we think in a linear (and lyrical) way. It’s worth remembering that it isn’t just singers and wind players who have to pay attention to their breathing and posture when practising, but all of us. If you are sitting at the piano, make sure your breath supports your posture (Alexander Technique is well worth exploring for all musicians) – this is as important for music as it is for sport. Good posture, and good breath control, allows you to think musically.
To start a practice session, it needs to be easy to change from your ‘outward’ (or busy) self to your ‘musical’ self. Just as you warm up before you run, so you should warm up to make music. Begin with some kind of breathing exercises – expelling old thoughts when you exhale and enjoying the freshness of the new when you inhale. You are doing this to get into your musical world – enjoy it. Then engage your instrument, through scales, arpeggios, or improvising – but keep thinking creatively, remembering that you are making music and expressing yourself. Make every sound mean something. Once you are ‘in the zone’, then you’re ready to put your mind to the real business of practice.
The business of practice. Accept that practising is an all-absorbing activity which engages you, and which is work. After all, we have no problem accepting this with physical exercise (“no pain, no gain”) – those moments of being at one with the music can only happen as a result of hours of intensive practice. Your mind and body adapt to music through practice – and only through practice. Accept that you will be improving, but gradually, and through daily practice. The great conductor Carlo Maria Giulini’s advice to young conductors was to “hurry slowly” – and this is a good maxim for individual practising too: know the sound that you want to achieve and enjoy the process of getting there.
Enjoy working through the music at a slow tempo (not just the difficult bits) – this way, you are giving yourself time to think, and are allowing both mind and body to assimilate the music. Gradually work the piece up to speed (and if you use a metronome, make sure this becomes part of the musical process, rather than making you feel as if you are being beaten with a stick!) until you are comfortable. This means that, when you get to the real tempo in performance, you’ll keep that sense of having time to think.
It’s worth remembering that the most important piece of musical equipment you own is your mind. Practising is about internalising the music through having allowed it time to work its way into your brain. How you think affects how you will play. There is no escaping the fact that mechanical repetition is needed in order for the body to adapt – but your brain needs to be engaged as well: so, with each repetition, allow your mind to focus on a different aspect of the music – the line and shape of the phrase; the harmony; the tone colour; the balance between parts, and so on. Just as the painter Claude Monet produced over thirty canvasses of the West Front of Rouen Cathedral, each exploring the different play of the light on the building, so you are deepening your perception of the music through your changing focus in repetition.
Finally, when you are nearing the moment when you are going to perform your piece to an audience, give yourself plenty of opportunities to play the piece through in its entirety without stopping. Don’t leave this until the performance itself, hoping that some moment of magic from above will miraculously create amazing music – it doesn’t! Every musician gets nervous before performing in public, but the way in which we practise should help – so if your memories of working on the piece of music are positive, following some or all of the tips above, then this is what you will tap into when you perform. Good luck!
Simon Toyne is Executive Director of Music of the David Ross Education Trust and Malcolm Arnold Academy, and is a Director of the Eton Choral Courses.