This blog post will serve as the beginning to a series of blog posts I plan to release about how to build your own practice routine. I am a firm believer that this is the first step in truly owning your own process as a practicer and a performer. Without the knowledge of how to build a routine, continued progress will consistently seem just out of reach.
Assigning exercises is the most critical part of this process. If you aren’t able to assign exercises of proper difficulty, you won’t be able to maximize your time spent in the practice room. This discussion is part of a larger discussion of a state of being called flow state. Flow state can be defined many ways, so for the purposes of this post, I’ll define flow state as: doing work that is neither too easy nor too hard. Finding the sweet spot where you aren’t bored and you aren’t overwhelmed. It is in this state that maximum learning happens.
First Things First
Before we can assign any exercises, we have to first discuss what the goal of the exercises are. I’ve spoken before (check my story highlight on Instagram) about how we must understand that the goal of a routine is not to learn exercises, but rather to learn skills. This seems obvious, and yet I would be willing to bet this concept isn’t reflected in many practice routines.
Let’s say you are interested in developing your sound/tone quality. The first question to ask is, “What kinds of exercises would be good to help me develop my sound/tone quality?”. Continuing with this thought, maybe you would think of doing lyrical etudes. Studies where the goal is to put your best sound forward in a musical way. And you would be right! It wouldn’t make much sense to perform a technically challenging etudes/exercise to work on sound because there are too many other variables to manage.
Understanding what your goal is will always be the first step in assigning proper routines. If you have been assigned exercises by a teacher, it is imperative to your own progression that you understand what the goal of the exercise is so that you can focus on improvement. As a teacher, there may be times where you don’t want a student to overthink their process. I would simply suggest you double check that they know what their aim or goal is, so they can have something to strive towards with clarity.
This next step will be hard for many people. Once you have found your goal, you must find an exercise that is not too easy nor too hard for you at your current ability level. Too often players (myself most of all) fall into the trap of not being real with themselves about their current ability level. Most people let their ego lead them astray. Because of this, they end up playing exercises that are too hard, ensuring less than maximal learning in the practice room.
I was speaking with a trumpet playing friend of mine, and he expressed a level of frustration about his lack of progress in his ability level. I asked him if he had accepted where he was as a player, his response was “I think so. I know what I need to work on, and I’m not shy about doing the work”. If this response were true, there should be no frustration. But it’s possible the frustration lies in a misunderstanding of his current ability level. I relayed to him that he might be frustrated because he is trying to move from level 4 to level 5, when he’s actually only at level 3.
Quality Vs. Quantity
One of the key tenants that I preach about developing a healthy practice routine is that it’s about the quality of your playing, not the quantity of time spent playing. If you have never experienced the purifying power of taking 4 steps back, playing exercises that seem “easy”, and trying to execute with perfection, I challenge you to try. It’s humbling to say the least.
In fitness, I’ve learned about the body, and how it is a master of compensation. When the goal is to move the weight from point A to point B, our body will find a way to get it done. Unfortunately, the body is not always concerned with whether or not a lift is done with proper form. If the task is too big, the body will recruit more muscles to help with a given exercise. As such, the best case scenario is the over-challenged person lifting with improper form will eventually hit a plateau and not be able to progress. The worst case scenario would be that improper form can lead to injuries.
As a musician, we need to be concerned with proper form, especially during practice. During a performance, the rules are a little more relaxed. But our practice (training) should be designed around ingraining proper habits. The main concern should be keeping the average of our playing quality as high as possible. This will gradually seep into our performance, keeping us healthy and injury free over the long term.
My recommendation for people when starting to build their own program is to take a step back. Determine your goals and assign proper exercises to accomplish those goals. In the beginning, it’s perfectly fine if it seems a little too easy. Let the quality of your playing and the quality of your focus drive the perceived difficulty. All of us should be in this for the long haul. Taking a little time at the beginning to ensure you’ll make progress for the rest of your career is absolutely worth it.
If you are interested in getting more help building your own personalized practice routine, don’t hesitate to send me a message! You can use the contact page, or send me a message through any of my social media pages!
Editor – Will Baker, http://www.willbakermusic.com