Five Keys to Practicing Success

Five Musical Keys To Practicing Success
Part One: Have Musical Heroes

In the early stages, and in every stage, of your musical journey take advantage of learning from people who have mastered skills you are working on, who have meaningful careers in music, or who have incorporated music into their own life, into their family or community in ways that make a difference. Do you want to be on the Broadway stage, play in an orchestra, become a recording artist, a sound engineer, or a music teacher? Do you want to enjoy playing your instrument for holiday gatherings, on camping trips with family, or at a church service?
The sky is the limit! Knowing what other musicians have achieved, why it’s meaningful to them, and how they did it is the best place to start! Don’t underestimate the value of listening to recordings, or of watching videos of musicians who inspire you, or who might inspire you if you found out about them! Don’t limit yourself to only finding out about music you are working on, or music for your own instrument! Start with your instrument, and expand from there! Listen to or watch some performances, find out about performers, composers, arrangers, conductors, and more. You might find that listening to and watching others helps you find your musical path.
Technology provides a wonderful tool to stream live concerts, to watch and listen to great musicians for free on You Tube, and to easily access almost anything in your phone, tablet, or computer at any time that you want. Be smart! Pick your teacher’s brain, ask them about their favorite artists, ask them where to find recordings, and why they are inspiring. Ask them how to get started!
Do some active and passive listening! Active listening involves listening to music you are working on, or really engaging in listening to a performance that you love. Don’t just listen to and watch them, find out about the performers and why they play, what they love about music, about their life and their musical career. Find out about composers, conductors, arrangers, and engineers. Again, start with your teacher, ask them questions, tell them what frustrates you or scares you, ask them how they deal with it. Ask them how they stay inspired and motivated and what they think would be good first steps for you as a student. You take it from there!
Passive listening is great too, and it isn’t really passive, it’s immersing yourself in music all of the time and for fun. Whatever you love, be it classical, jazz, Broadway, pop, rock, Latin, Hip Hop, folk music, or anything, listen at dinner, listen in the car or on the bus to school, listen as you fall asleep, just keep listening all of the time and discover all of the amazing music that’s out there waiting for you!
What’s the best part of my musical career? Being able to perform in diverse types of music in wildly different settings! Whether I am working as an orchestral musician and conductor, composer, writer, soloist, chamber musician, recording artist, producer, gig musician or a teacher, I love it all! Listening to and learning from my musical heroes is one key to my success, and it can be yours too!

Musical Keys To Practicing Success
Part Two: Get The Most Bang For Your Buck!

Get The Most Bang For Your Buck… Before The Lesson! Your organization and preparation makes all the difference! It will help you use lesson time efficiently, and it will get you focused! Try to practice a little and review notes before hand, and allow enough time to really get ready! Have a checklist. Gather instrument(s) and other materials before you leave, or before your instructor arrives (lesson note book, phone or tablet to record, pencil, music, music stand, and any equipment you need such as cleaning cloths, rosin, cables, shoulder rest, foot stool… whatever you need). Have one bag to keep everything together! This way you won’t forget anything, and you can use lesson time efficiently! Allow some extra time for this!
Get The Most Bang For Your Buck… At The Lesson! Have a notebook (I like three ring because I can add pages, staff paper, photocopies, etc.), and decide who will take notes (student, parent, or teacher). Make sure you have a clear idea of what happened during the lesson and what to work on when you go home. A list or a chart in addition to the notes is great! Use technology if you can! Bring a phone or a tablet and record examples of your teacher demonstrating or of yourself playing so that you can see it when you practice. Let your teacher advise you how this can be helpful!
Get The Most Bang For Your Buck… After The Lesson!
Use a practice chart or journal (I like a chart that has enough room for me to write what I worked on and what still needs work), and use it for every practice. Base it on the notes/recordings from the lesson. Keep a separate list of listening you do during the week. Write down questions or list things you have worked on that you need help with. Bring these to your next lesson.

Musical Keys To Practicing Success
Part Three: Have Great Practice Habits!

Attitude Is Everything! Start your practice, whether it’s a long practice, or you just have a few minutes, with the attitude that you are ready to work, learn, improve, and have fun playing your instrument in that moment. Don’t worry about small mistakes or let challenges frustrate you. Just notice them, then go back and tackle difficult passages in smaller pieces. Make sure that you don’t try a few times until you get something just the way you want and stop. Go the extra mile and repeat your own best version several times so that you really remember, and can build from that at the next practice.
Effective Time Management Leads to Faster Improvement! At the start of your practice, decide how much time you have, maybe it’s only fifteen minutes (ten minutes of real time by the time you set up to start and pack up at the end). No worries, use that time well! Pick the thing that is the most difficult and focus on that. If you have time, review something fun. Be glad that you kept the momentum going and didn’t skip a day! If you have time for a long practice, use your practice chart and lesson notes, try to cover everything at least a little bit, and note what needs the most work so that you can start with that the next time, whether it’s a particular piece, a new technique, or one difficult “chunk”.
Make A Practice Plan and Check List!
1.Review Lesson Notes! Using a practice chart is helpful, but also be sure to note what should be improved or worked on in each piece. Use the check list to keep you on track and plan to “adjust the plan” accordingly for the rest of your practice or for the next practice!
2.Self-evaluation is the fasted way to improve! Have someone take a quick video of something you are working on. Notice what’s going well and what still needs work Start with whatever needs the most work at the next practice.
3.Write down questions for your teacher. If you start your lesson by telling your teacher how your practicing went, they can be that much more helpful to you. Your teacher wants to help you reach your goals!
Choose Focus Points For Each Practice! Here’s a sample of how you could divide your practice time. The best way is always to make a plan with your teacher that fits your needs!
1.Technique-Scales, exercises, etudes, chord study would be examples.
2.Repertoire-Music you are working on to perform at an upcoming recital or event, or new pieces you are studying for your lessons.
3.Ensemble or School Music-Anything you are playing with others at school, in an orchestra or band, in a chamber music group or jazz combo, or anything you will play at church, or with friends or family just for fun.
4.Sight Reading-Try looking through music you have never played. It may start as simply as just learning to recognize notes, rhythms, and chords, and you will eventually develop the ability to play something for fun without making it a major practice project. Your teacher can point you in the right direction!
5.Review-Music you’ve already played. It’s important to build on what you have already learned, that’s the foundation for progress! Don’t just drop those pieces, keep improving them and keep them fresh. Who knows, you might be teaching them one day!

Musical Keys To Practicing Success
Part Four: Discover Musical Pizza!

Making Amazing Music Is Like Making Amazing Pizza! Learning a new piece can be challenging and very intimidating, especially if you try to tackle all the elements or “ingredients” at once. We all know how to make a pizza. We don’t throw the water, flour, salt, pizza sauce, toppings, and cheese all into a bowl and put it into the oven! Perfect pizza comes from five steps, and mastering a piece of music can be divided into five steps.
1-“The Crust!” If it’s a pizza, you make the dough or buy a crust and put it on the pan, if it’s music, start by learning the notes and fingerings. Writing them into your part and then practicing them until you have them, getting them in tune, or if you’re playing piano or keyboard, until you can play each hand separately and then combine.
2-“The Sauce!” Rhythms. Practice clapping or saying them in small chunks, then play on one note before you try to play the notes in rhythm. Use a metronome with your teacher’s help!
3-“The Toppings!” Bowings, articulations, and techniques needed for each section.
4-“The Cheese!” Expression from dynamics, character, tempo, and knowing the style of the music. Try to read the expressive markings from the composer, such as “dolce” or “allegro”, and talk with your teacher about what they mean in the context of your piece.
5-“Put It Together And Bake It!” After you practice the first four steps, start putting them together! Everything about playing an instrument is simple, but it’s not easy! The hard part is doing a lot of simple things at the same time! Dividing the steps makes it easier!
Be A Connoisseur Of Music, Become An Expert At Crafting The Perfect Performance! Why does the process of creating a pizza seem so obvious? Because even if you’ve never made one, you’ve seen pizza, smelled pizza, tasted pizza and probably seen someone make one! You can tell the difference between the best one, and one that is just a quick fast-food snack and it’s ok. Become an expert at knowing a terrific performance from one that’s just ok. How do you do this? The best way is to go to concerts often! Seeing a symphony, a jazz band, a musical, a folk singer, a string quartet, a piano trio, a brass or woodwind quintet, or an opera in person is completely different from listening to a recording or watching a video. It gives you a chance to “sit in the restaurant”, to see what the chef and the kitchen staff are doing, to smell the amazing aromas and enjoy the ambiance. Concerts allow you to see the performers, the venues, the engineers, the stage crew, to see what the warm up looks like, and to experience it with other people. It’s a magical experience! After all, what’s better, eating the pizza or looking at a video of someone eating a pizza?
Become Part Of The Process! Now it’s your turn, make your own pizza! Use the outline above to prepare for your own performance and enjoy it! Obviously consistent practicing, lessons, great attitude, and a certain amount of trial and error are going to be part of the process, but knowing what you want draws you close to that goal!
Share The Recipe! The best way to solidify something you have learned is to teach it to someone else. Whether you are actually helping a friend or family member practice, or whether you just take some time to explain how you practice, what you are learning, and how it effects your performing, explaining it to someone else clarifies everything in your own mind and is often fun for the person listening, who hasn’t had the same experience yet. Think of it like hosting your own cooking or travel show! You are hosting a show about music, what makes a particular piece unique or fascinating, and what it takes to perform it!

Musical Keys To Practicing Success
Part Five: Be The Secret To Your Own Success!
Set Realistic Short And Long Term Goals.
Don’t set lofty goals without knowing how much work it will take to achieve them, that will only lead to disappointment. Instead, set weekly practice goals with your teacher, with long term goals in mind, such as performances, competitions, playing in an ensemble or with friends and family, or just a higher level of proficiency with your own instrument. The small goals serve as solid stepping stones, reasonable concrete achievements that build your skill and your confidence.
At your weekly lessons, keep checking to see if you are on track to meet these goals. Are you ahead of schedule? Did you bite off more than you can chew? Adjust the goals accordingly, perhaps perform sooner, or shoot for something more realistic for the time that you have to spend. Alternatively, you may decide to increase your practice time and listening time to meet the goal that you have set! Doing this will establish a mental history or “track record” of success. Even if you fall short, you can feel proud of your progress and the positive things that you did achieve and the goals that you accomplished. All of this will keep your momentum going!
Remember, You Don’t Have To Run The Full Distance Every Day! Look at a short practice as a quick jog, or a walk around the block to stay in shape! Use a long practice wisely with a practice plan and a checklist! Don’t establish a habit of skipping practices, establish instead the habit of doing the best you can with the time that you have!
Have A Consistent Practice Time And Place! This helps most people get focused, and establishes a good habit, a rhythm for your musical life. If you can’t practice at the normal time, or as much as you want, do a short practice, or at least try to squeeze in some listening!
Stay organized! Keep music, equipment, instrument(s) in a safe place, preferably wherever you practice! If it has to be somewhere else, make a habit of unpacking, and packing up at the beginning and end of each practice, just as if you were going to a lesson. Having to search for a piece of music, lesson notes, a metronome, or a music stand wastes a lot of time that could have been playing time!
Find A Support Network! Play for your parents, friends, or do low stress performing at home, on holidays, or at community events. Find your own fan club so that you have people cheering for you, who value and understand the time you are putting in!
Great Practice Habits Don’t Just Grow On Trees! Think of them as a journey, like following a treasure map, and you are the one that has to do the walking! Each clue leads you a little closer, and you learn new things and enjoy a lot of adventures along the way! Sometimes, it can be scary or challenging to explore new things, other times exciting to discover something new! Don’t look at a set back as a failure, look at it as a detour, and find a way to keep following the map to your goal. Musical treasure awaits you, and you just might find that the search often becomes as rewarding as finding that treasure at the end of the map!

Karine Stone