“Practice smarter, not longer.” This is statement that I have run into throughout my years of taking lessons and learning. Often we think that the longer we work, the better we will get. There is some truth to that, but it all has to be quality practice time.
Often I see my students making the same mistake. That mistake is simply working on a piece of music from beginning to end, and starting over when they make a mistake. This brings us to the “how to practice” conversation. By always playing a piece the whole way though, you are getting better at the parts that you can already play, and reinforcing the mistakes you are making in the problem spots. This goes back to the muscle memory… every time you repeat something and play it incorrectly, your muscles are remembering what you have done.
So how can you make better use of your time? Don’t work on the parts that you can already play as much, and focus on the problem spots. If I am working on a concerto, I will put square brackets around the problem spot, put a dash at the end of the line where that spot is, and put an x at the top of the page. This all helps me to find the spot quickly so I can work on it. If you are working on a fiddle tune or another short piece, you can just put the brackets around the area. Actually marking it is very helpful as it reminds you as soon as you get out your music that you need to pay special attention to that area.
The next step is to work on those bracketed parts first. Just like we discussed in the post “Does Practice Make Perfect?” it is best to work on the hard parts early in your session when you are more alert and can focus better. Work on the hard parts until you can play them easily. It will help if you slow the hard section down and then gradually speed it up to the same speed as everything else. Once you have mastered the tricky spot, try playing the whole line of music. Once you can play the whole line seamlessly, then try the whole section of the piece, and then finally go back to playing the whole piece.
So don’t forget, it’s not about the amount of time that you spend working on a piece, but the quality and use of that time. Happy practicing!