You can have the best teacher in the world, but when you are trying to improve your skills on your instrument and become a better musician, most of the learning is done through your own practice. Over the years, I have studied and taken lessons with many teachers on various instruments, and the most valuable takeaway for me always comes down to one question: How do you practice? There are many books and podcasts and blogs that have explored this subject, and quite a few of them share similar ideas, including this Ted-Ed video. Here is JAMBO’s take on how to make the most out of your music practice:
Block out time for your practice. A lot of us have busy lives, and practising won’t happen unless you set a time for it. Try to have the same practice schedule every week, and if possible, do it early in the day, before you get too drained and tired from a full day of work or school. However, even when you don’t feel too motivated to practice some days, the act of physically picking up the instrument and playing could actually get you in the zone before you realize it. Always have your instrument handy so it doesn’t take you too long to get set up.
Remove distractions. You want to be focused when you practise. Ideally, put your phone and computer away or in airplane mode during your practice session. This could be a tricky one though, since there’s much on the internet such as YouTube and various online lesson platforms could be very helpful for learning and practising (but also dangerously distracting). In any case, try to silence your phone for a moment and keep your mind focused.
Set realistic / small goals. You might have whole list of things you’d like to improve on, or 20 tunes you’d like to learn, but it is better to set just one or two goals each week, so they are actually achievable and you won’t get overwhelmed or frustrated quickly.
Use a timer. Keep your practice sessions short and take breaks in between. Your brain can only be at its optimal focused state for a limited amount of time. Set your timer for 20-25 minutes at a time, and take short breaks in between. It can keep your mind fresh and give it a break when it starts to drift away from the task at hand.
Deliberate practice. The number of hours spent on practising does not matter if you are not doing it effectively. You need to be able to identify mistakes or a spot tricky passages, then slow it down and break it down into small chunks to make incremental improvements by correcting them. If you practise without intention, and repeat something wrong over and over again, you will only solidify your mistakes. It takes extra time to unlearn something and re-learn correctly later. By approaching new skills the right way the first time, you will achieve a lot more in a shorter period of time.
Record yourself. It’s not always possible to hear how everything sounds while you’re focused on playing the instrument at the same time. Record yourself using your phone, and listen back to it afterwards. You might hear something you haven’t noticed before - it could be a slight imperfection in intonation, tone, or rhythm, that you can then start to work on. It is also good to have a record of how you sound today, so you have something compare to a few months from now to see the progress you’ve made!
Keep it fun. It’s good to have a routine for your practice, which generally includes warming up, reviewing material, learning new stuff, and improving on techniques, etc. But when it begins to feel dull and uninspiring, don’t be afraid to change up the routine. Come up with something new to work on to ignite your creative spark. Improvise, invent your own technical exercise, work on playing at a fast tempo, learn a new tune or piece, transcribe a solo, play along with recordings or backing tracks.
Get enough sleep. Some days it seems your fingers won’t do what you want them to, and nothing you play sounds the way you want. That might just be a sign that your body and your mind are in need of a snooze. Take a nap, or go to bed for the night and come back to it the next day. You’d be surprised how much better you could do when you are well rested.
Keep a practice journal. Write down your small goals before each practice session, so you don’t get sidetracked. It will also help you pick up from where you left off at the last session, and track your progress over a longer period of time. If you have new ideas about what you want to work on at any time, write it down in your practice journal as well so you can try them out at the next session.
Get inspired. We all have times when we get stuck and not sure what to work on. Go out there and hear some live music, learn from other musicians, meet and play with other people, perform in front of people - it will help you get inspired and tell you what you need to work on.