This post was written as a guest blog post for Honesty Pill . Check out what they are doing over there and grab some more fantastic insight into practicing habits, mindset, and audition prep!
It’s always easy to practice a piece that is brand new to us. After all, everything needs to be figured out–the notes, rhythm, dynamics, tempo, etc. Likewise, when we have a performance looming in the (very!) near future, it’s easy to focus on and tackle anything that is still not feeling 100% comfortable.
But what about those in-between times? When your task at hand is to “make it better”. I’ve heard from a lot of new coaching clients and colleagues that they sometimes find it hard to know what to do to continue to improve. “Make it Better” is a little vague. I mean, we all know what needs to be better, right? Intonation, phrasing, sound, breath control, all of the things, but how do we go about fixing “it all”?
What I find to be missing from a lot of people’s practice sessions (and what was definitely missing from mine when I was growing up) is the habit of setting a clear intention of what, and I mean exactly what, one is about to work on.
It needs to go beyond, “I’m going to work on this 16th-note passage”, and get narrowed down to a point of “I’m going to feel the articulation of my fingers through this 16th-note passage” or “I’m going to work on speed and build up from 88-104 on the metronome today”.
Yes. That Specific. How many times have you told yourself you were going to “work on” a particular passage, only to find yourself heading towards the final few bars of the piece a few minutes later? Oops! or mindlessly repeating a measure 25x. How much better is the passage? You have no idea. Maybe it’s a little better? Maybe not?
There is a saying in the business world: “What gets measured, gets managed”, and it rings true for practicing as well. Practicing with a clear intention allows you to measure your success in that small, clear way. If your intention is to clean up intonation, and that’s what you work on for 30 minutes, you can tell at the end of your session if you’re playing more in tune.
Setting an intention keeps you focused, and it gives you clear, tangible evidence of improvement. Did you manage to get the passage up to q=104? Great! that’s a clear improvement from yesterday when you couldn’t play it at 96. If you were only able to get it to 100, then you know where to start next time. And you can still walk away knowing that you made some improvement in the speed.
There are days when I’m just not feeling it. Maybe it’s the day after a big performance and I want to give myself a little break. On those days, I’ll pull out a new-to-me piece that I have been wanting to take a look at, and my intention will be “I’m going to try to play through this piece from beginning to end and see how well I can read it”. Or I might take an old piece that is not currently on my performance repertoire list and my intention will be “I am going to play through this piece and really listen into my sound production”. While there is no immediate pressure to improve anything, I’m still staying focused and still managing to get something positive out of the practice session. Anything less is just a waste of time.
Every intention I set makes my practicing feel completely different so I never get bored practicing the same pieces month after month. One day, my intention will be set around my vibrato, so I’m thinking a lot about how the phrase direction calls for different speeds and ranges of motion in my vibrato. The next day, I might set my intention around bow angles, so my focus in on my right hand now, instead of my left. It almost feels like a different piece. By switching up my intentions each day, I’m seeing it all from different perspectives, leaving no stone unturned.
Without Intention, you’re wasting a lot of time in the practice room. Time spent mindlessly playing through a whole piece (badly). Time spent repeating a passage without even stopping to figure out what needs adjustment, and time spent wondering where the last few hours went, and whether they made any difference.
I can guarantee that when you start adding in this tool, you’ll be blown away by the results. Your practicing will feel more efficient, more focused, and more productive. You’ll start out knowing exactly what you want to get done, and you’ll pack up feeling more accomplished and further ahead than before.
We all know that practicing is a neverending pursuit. There is no such thing as “perfect” nor is there such a thing as “done”. It is both the source of a musician’s pain and the whole reason we fell in love with music in the first place. The quest for beauty, expression and the physical rush of that perfectly executed passage keeps us going day after day. Use intentions to keep your work focused and measurable and you’ll soon find that your results are more successful.
Action Item: At the start of your next practice session, choose a passage that has been giving you some trouble, and make a quick video of you playing it. Decide what progress you would like to make on it that day and then set a clear, doable intention. At the end of your session, make another video of the same passage, and take note of your progress. You can also take note of something else in the passage you would like to work on and make that your next intention.