Routine Practice and Practice Routines
One of the questions I’m asked most, and that I try to avoid answering, is about practice routines. The reason I avoid answering is that firstly I don’t like the idea of routines, and then I don’t know that it’s possible to come up with a good all-purpose routine for everyone because the best practice for you depends on you and your needs. I think there are better questions to ask than “what’s the best routine”? If we can answer a few questions about where we’re at, what we want to improve, and how much time we really have, maybe we can come up with good customized practice routines for ourselves!
Technique vs Material
Since I think that most people are asking about technique practice when they ask this, that’s mainly what I’ll address here, but I also think it’s important to strike a healthy balance between just working on technique and working on material. Remember that technique is a means to express ourselves, so I recommend spending at least as much time working on music as you work on technique. After all, that’s the point, right? (That said, we all go through technique phases from time to time – no hard and fast rules I guess!).
Warmup vs. Technique Practice
It’s also easy to confuse warmup with technique practice, especially since many of the exercises we learn can serve as either. The key, as with most of what we’re talking about here, is to know what you are trying to achieve. Warmup is really just about getting the blood flowing and the fingers moving, and in many cases can be just a few minutes. And if you’re really cold you might even want to warmup a little before diving into technique practice. It’s good to be aware of when you’re warming up and when you’re getting down to serious practice.
Knowing your goals, as specifically as possible, is the key to finding ways to improve your technique. Chances are your most general goal is to sound better or play faster (or, ideally, both). From a technical point of view, these are pretty much the prime objectives. But both of these goals are too vague to really help you decide what you need to do or what exercises will work. Knowing specifically what you want to improve is the key. I like to think of practice as problem solving, and you can’t solve the problem if you don’t know what it is, exactly.
Figuring out how to be as specific as possible can be a challenge, but it’s incredibly powerful. For example, it’s easy to think “I can’t play this arpeggio,” but it’s not really a useful thought. A more useful observation would be “the transition between playing the thumb and then playing the a-finger is not as smooth as I’d like it to be,” “my middle finger doesn’t always connect on every arpeggio,” or “my time isn’t as even as I want it to be.” This gives you a specific goal to work on, which allows you to focus on making a specific improvement. Solve one specific problem, and then you can move on to the next one. As the problems fall away, technique improves.
This is why I don’t like to say “do this arpeggio exercise for 20 minutes a day and you’ll improve your arpeggios.” In order for you to figure out how to improve, you need to know what you want to improve, and you need to know this as specifically as possible. There will be days when it feels like there are too many things to focus on, but if you take one at a time you’ll actually improve. If you try to fix everything by just playing a lot, chances are you won’t really be fixing anything.
Ok – Then What?
Once you know what you’re trying to really work on you’ll find that tons of exercises will work. You could take a falseta that involves the technique you’re working on and play it while focusing on your very specific goal. (It can be really surprising how often just focusing on the specific problem fixes the problem – the very act of remembering to do it right is sometimes all that’s needed). In fact, you’ll soon see that most exercises are basically ways to keep you interested in playing a given technique over and over, so as long as you focus on your goal, you can customize exercises to your very specific needs. Also, I find that simple exercises, while maybe less sexy and flashy, allow you to focus on your technique rather than on remembering how the exercise goes.
What you don’t want to do is to simply play a million arpeggios and assume that’s going to help. If you’re not focused on improving anything in particular, chances are you’ll just be reinforcing all of your habits, both good and bad. In other words, you’ll get really good at making the same mistakes you already tend to make, and changing those bad habits habits only gets harder the more you repeat/reinforce them.
How Much Time Should I Practice?
Of course, what everyone wants to really know is the secret formula – how much time of each technique does one need to play to get good?! And the unsatisfying answer – which you probably knew deep down already – is that this isn’t a question anyone can answer for you. I can say that in general it’s a good idea to work on a little bit of everything every day, but that will mean vastly different things if your goal is to play professionally than if your goal is to play for fun. If you have the time and the drive to practice 2-6 hours a day, that’s great, but there’s a lot you can accomplish with a little bit of focused practice in a short amount of time.
And one thing I’ve learned over the years is that practicing more often can help more than practicing more total time – in other words, spending five minutes on a task three or four times a day can be more effective than spending two hours on that same thing. There’s something about repeatedly coming back to something you’re working on that can do wonders. So if you can steal 20 minutes a few times a day, and you’re focused in your practice, you can accomplish some pretty great things.
There are two things I don’t like about the idea of a routine: the first is the idea that it literally becomes a routine, so you don’t focus – you’re just trying to get through X amount of repetitions of a given exercise, which makes it easy to zone out and lose focus; the second is that they tend to be inflexible. Weird as it sounds, it’s kind of exciting for me to find a new problem, as long as it’s really specific. When I find something really specific to fix, I’ll sometimes spend hours or days learning how to fix it, and then trying to reinforce the new good habit that avoids the problem I’ve noticed. If I’m thinking too much about my fifteen minutes of arpeggios which come before my fifteen minutes of scales, I might not stop to really dig in and fix that problem.
So you might come up with an outline – say, 15 minutes of each of four techniques every day – but I also recommend allowing yourself to stray when you find you’re making actual progress. You’re likely to get much more out of sticking with something that’s starting to work for a while than moving on to the next thing just because the clock tells you to.
Have I Answered the Question?
So after all of this I still haven’t answered the question, except to say that there simply is no one answer. I actually like this, because I’m not very good at being told what to do. I love practicing – it’s one of my very favorite things to do in life. And the most satisfying practice is when I actually fix something – whether it’s technical or more of a musical thing, having something specific to work on is what leads both to my most productive practice and to my most creative moments. Embrace specificity, and you’ll find that you make breakthroughs more easily and more often.