Practicing with Purpose: It’s more than just run-throughs!
Ahh, the age-old tale of practicing. You’ll often hear us instructors repeat ourselves, almost like broken records, emphasizing the importance of effective practice. But what does effective practicing actually look like?
In my studio, I have my students fill out a habit tracker to mark their practicing habits daily. Each week, I check in with their progress and keep a total tally on the wall behind me. While many students fill in all their boxes, I can usually tell when they might have been a bit generous in marking their actual practice time or if their practice wasn’t as efficient; most times it’s the latter. I then ask the question, “What does your practicing look like at home?” Oftentimes the answer to that question is “I run through the song once or twice.”
Effective practice goes beyond simply running through the entire song from beginning to end a few times. Relying solely on the run-through method makes it easy to overlook mistakes in notes, rhythms, tempo, dynamics, finger numbers, and other markings throughout the music. Depending on the song’s length, you might forget a mistake made in measure two by the time you reach measure 57.
One effective way of practicing is using the sandwich method: At the beginning of your practice, start with a run-through to get an idea where your trouble spots lie, making mental notes of where those places are in the music. Then go back and isolate each measure(s) you were struggling with, and work on it until you can play those measures at least three times in a row with no mistakes in between. Once you have addressed each trouble spot, end your practice with one more run-through. Did you fix all the mistakes you made in the first run-though? If you did, awesome! If you didn’t, that’s alright! You have something to address tomorrow in the next practice. Did you make new mistakes that weren’t present in the previous run-through? That’s okay too! Mark in your music where the new and existing trouble spots are and you’ll have plenty to work on next time.
Another practice tip I’ve found helpful is starting at random points in your music; This is beneficial to your playing, since you can’t rely on just your muscle memory of the song to carry you through from start to finish. If you can only play from beginning to end, as opposed to being able to play from any random point in the music, you’ll find it hard to recover from your mistakes and will ultimately have to start again at the beginning to play through the song. One way to combat this is by starting at the end of the piece and working your way backward. You can also close your eyes and point to a random spot on the page and start EXACTLY where your finger landed, even if it’s in the middle of a measure on the & of beat 3!
Isolating your mistakes, starting at random points in the music, and using the sandwich method are just a few tips to help make your practice more effective and escalate your progress even more!