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Efficient Practice: Accomplish More in Less Time

At the moment, I’m trying to learn a lot of music for the upcoming season. I don’t have enough time to practice every piece daily, and, as a result, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to work efficiently. How can one learn more music in less time?

As a student, I was motivated to work hard by my passion for music. In high school, I woke up early and practiced before school, ate my lunch quickly so I could get in an extra 25 minutes of practice during lunch, and then practiced again in the evenings. In college, I would typically be in a practice room by 8:00 each morning. However, in spite of working diligently, my practicing was not always as effective as it could have been. As a result, I was sometimes frustrated by the pace of my progress.

When I was a first-year DMA student at Juilliard, I had so many different demands on my time (lots of academic coursework, chamber music rehearsals, solo repertoire, playing in various ensembles) that I was able to find significantly less practice time than I had before. Nonetheless, I had performing commitments to fulfill. In other words, I was forced to do more with less time. At first, I struggled: I remember one lesson in particular in which I almost broke down trying to make it through the first movement of the Beethoven Concerto because I was so tired. After the initial months of struggle, though, something unexpected happened: I made breakthroughs in my playing.

When my time was limited, what changed that allowed me to practice more efficiently and effectively? As I look back, I’m able to identify certain approaches to my practice routine that enhanced the efficiency:

  1. I was more creative when practicing. I had such limited time that I would use whatever free moments I had. For example, I would use a few minutes between classes to study a score, audiate in my head, or do mental practice.

  2. I relied more heavily on the knowledge and skills that I already had. My habit had been to go back and cover basics (for example, to drill technical passages before thinking about musicality) every time I started a new piece, but I discovered that I didn’t need to do that.

  3. My practice became more integrated, meaning I was better about working musicality and technique simultaneously. There are certainly times when it is beneficial to work the two separately, but ultimately, they are inextricably linked. The earlier in the process of learning a piece one can start incorporating colors and phrasing, the more quickly everything will come together.

  4. Listen! The way that I listened to myself changed in the sense that I began to rely more heavily on what I wanted to hear from my violin. For more about how to listen, stay tuned for the next blog post.

  5. Short but focused practice sessions. I did not have the luxury of many long practice sessions, but I was able to use this as an advantage. Short, focused sessions in which I chose one or two specific spots to drill (while still playing musically!) proved effective.

  6. I rotated through pieces so that I managed to cover everything every few days. I also identified the trickiest passages that needed daily or even more frequent practice. For those particular sections or pieces, I would practice them at least once a day.

  7. I had to learn how to go into a performance feeling slightly less prepared yet still being able to perform at a high level. Being able to do this required me to let go of some of my perfectionistic tendencies and focus primarily on musical effect rather than a note-perfect performance.

  8. If I wasn’t getting better, I took a break.

  9. If one technique wasn’t working, I tried another one. If I was struggling with a particular fingering for a week or more, I changed it and tried a different one. If one drilling technique wasn't helping any longer, I found a different way to drill.

To be clear, the moral of this story is not to practice less. Ultimately, nothing can make up for a lack of practice. Nonetheless, our practice techniques evolve as we progress and change as players, and through creative and focused practicing, we can often accomplish more than we might initially expect.

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