One thing I find fascinating about our behaviour towards practice is that we very often know what we should do, but we don't do it.
Basic fundamentals (tone, rhythm, legato, dynamics, etc.) are very often neglected in practice, even though we know they're some of the most important facets of playing.
I want to give you a system of practicing that can make working on the fundamentals an automated process. This will eventually turn into a habit, which means that you won't need to rely on a system.
This is the system that I have used everyday for years. I've experimented with a lot of ways to practice and find this the most effective. I've given this to students and colleagues and they testify at how well it works for them.
1. Turn off all possible distractions (phone, tablet, computer, etc.)
2. Set a timer for 45 minutes
3. Give yourself 15 minutes to work on the basics
4. Give yourself 30 minutes to work on pieces and more advanced things
5. Once the timer chimes, stop practicing immediately
6. Reward yourself with a nice 5 - 10 minute break. Do something fun, relaxing and non-music related.
All of these steps are important, taking one of them out or altering them drastically will take away the system's effectiveness.
I'll break this down a little and talk about why this system is so effective.
Distractions suck and they happen very often in this age of digital machines that constantly beep. By taking these distractions away, it allows us to give our 100% attention to our given task/s. It gives us a peace of mind that we won't get led on to answering emails or taking calls or seeing what our friends posted on Facebook. Let's face it, do those really need to be addressed immediately? Will it really do any harm to wait 45 minutes max to answer that email or phone call or check that Facebook post?
I recommend doing this during times of the day where you're less likely to get really important emails or phone calls. I also recommend doing this for general health reasons and happiness. Set aside times during the day where you switch off all distractions; TV, phone, tablet - all of it, it will take away stress and make you a happier person.
Setting a timer is honestly one of the most valuable habits I've learned in regards to practice. It makes us value the time we have and strive to make the most of it. I've found 45 minutes to be an ideal amount, it's not too long to create fatigue or lose concentration and not too short, which allows us to get into a flow, get warmed up and have enough time to work with ideas.
I've found that working on the basics for 15 minutes before I work on pieces to be golden. This is like athletes who have routines or warm ups before a big event.
It's important to stop when the timer chimes so that we don't get into the habit of playing past our allotted time.
Rewarding yourself is more important than you might think. It makes you addicted to the thing you just did to reward yourself. You want to get addicted to practicing, right?
Try this system right now, today! But also, please be patient and give it at least a few days to really see the benefits. Let me know how it worked for you.
Dr. Daniel Nistico is a passionate performer, author and educator who specializes in the performance practice of 18th and 19th century guitar music. Daniel's teaching and research aims to revitalize the concept of being a well-rounded musician, with emphasis on topics like harmony that can lead to deeper musical understanding and provide tools for composing and improvising.