1. Practicing too little
OK–this is an obvious one to start out the list with, but I can’t tell you how many students of mine, after expressing frustration and confusion on why their playing hasn’t improved, admit to me that they practiced little or none at all the previous week.
Many of the following points on this list are about increasing practicing efficiency or changing what you focus on during your practice session, but if you’re not putting in the time, you’re simply not going to get results. Doors open and the impossible becomes a walk in the park with practice, and no shortcut or quick fix can replace good old fashioned hard work.
2. Practicing the wrong things
While many problems can be solved by simply putting in the time, major roadblocks can just as easily arise by choosing the wrong thing to practice. Does your vibrato stink? Then playing fast scales probably won’t address that weakness. Having trouble with string crossings. Shifting drills aren’t likely to spiff them up. Understanding one’s technical and musical weaknesses and addressing them in a consistent fashion over time is key.
3. Not using a metronome
Most students, unless prepped very carefully, seem to really dislike the metronome. Though many students quickly figure out the benefits of using a mentronome (reinforcing steady rhythm, notching up passages, and helping to structure practice sessions), some just never seem to pick up the habit. Most teachers, after listening to a student for about five seconds, will be able to pretty easily identify the metronome practicers from the non-metronome practicers!
4. Not using a drone
I’ve always tried to introduce practicing with a drone as quickly as possible. While this is probably more benefical to string players, having a reference pitch the background really helps students to identify the particular sound of different intervals and to hear what in-tune playing really sounds like. Many students suffering from dodgy intonation ate able to clean it up in a hurry by regularly using a drone.
5. Not tuning well
Good intonation starts at the source. If a student only gets their instrument “pretty close” and not dead-on in-tune before they start to play, they are at a tremendous disadvantage. Learning to not accept approximation in tuning leads to a higher standard of pitch in general.
It’s the “bad smell” theory in action–over time, sour intonation (our sonic bad smells) wears down your senses and you actually develop a tolerance for sour intonation. Don’t let this happen in your own playing! Tune very carefully and re-check regularly throughout your practice session.
6. Starting at the beginning every time
A student pulls out her music. She starts practicing her latest piece–page one, measure one, beat one. She plays a few bars. Boink! She hits a clam. Back to the top…
This is a trap that is extremely easy to fall into. Drilling a piece from the beginning every time and playing until you make a mistake often leads to a student knowing the first few bars very well and barely even recognizing what comes later. In addition to producing a decline in musical quality as the piece progresses, it often leads to frustration as the student bangs their head against the same stumbling block repeatedly without solving the problem.
Sometimes simply starting from the end of the piece and working backwards is all that us necessary to break through the practicing obstacle. By playing, for example, the final four bars, followed by the four bars before that, and progressing in this fashion, the student is always going from the unfamiliar to the familiar. Applying this principle to sections within a piece can solve a whole host of problems, and combining these sections together in a similar reverse fashion (coda, recap, development, exposition, intro) can make for a much more polished product. This method is psychologically comforting since the material is actually becoming more familiar as the piece progresses.
7. Inconsistent practice
For most people, practicing five hours one day and not at all the next is not an ideal setup. Music (like many things in life) benefits greatly from shorter but more frequent practice sessions. Burnout quickly sets in during practice, lowering productivity and increasing frustration, and too much time off between sessions makes retention more difficult. Getting a solid hour of work in every day will produce much better results and lead to less frustration and stagnation.
8. Inattentive practice
Practicing on autopilot, while certainly less mentally taxing, can lead to pretty disappointing results. Better to do 20 minutes of attentive and focused practice than two hours of unfocused and lackadasical noodling. Even better–how about 20 to 30 minutes of good work, then going for a run or doing somethin non-instrumental, followed by another shorter but more focused session?
9. Obsessive practicing
What exactly is “obsessive practicing”? Well, over time many musicians develop certain mental phobias, blocks, or obsessions over certain issues, many of which may have little or no basis in reality. Maybe it’s a certain technique or maybe it’s a specific technique, but it is disturbingly easy to make mountains out of molehills and hamper overall progress and musical maturity for the sake of one very specific technique or excerpt.
10. Not taking breaks
Take breaks! If you’re practicing correctly, you should be be feeling a little mentally (and perhaps physically) winded after 30 to 45 minutes of practicing. Try to take, at a minimum, 10 to 15 minutes an hour for a real break. Get up, walk around, get a drink of water, a cup of coffee, or a power snack, and then head back to the practice room refreshed and ready to put in another 30 to 45 minutes.
11. No practice plan
While you can go too far with this (don’t get so obsessed with your practice plan that you forget to actually play!), writing down an outline of what you want to accomplish in a practice session can be an indespensible tool in making progress. Writing down your plan makes you more likely to stick with it, and having a written record of past practice sessions allows you to track progress and catch inconsistencies in your preparation.
12. Getting stuck in a bubble
Believe it or not, too much practicing without balancing it out by attending concerts, playing chamber music, and even sitting under a tree and reading a book leads to stunted musical growth. Why, after all, did we become musicians? To spend all day every day locked in a practice room, isolated and antisocial? I sure didn’t! Better to spend some time out in the world, going to concerts, museums, art galleries, libraries, and in nature. You obviously have to put in regular and consistent practice time to make progress, but don’t forget to live life along the way! You’ll have much more to express and will be a deeper musician for it.
13. Getting frustrated too easily
Some people have a very low tolerance for frustration, throwing in the towel when the going gets tough. I’ve frequently heard from top-tier musicians that if practicing feels easy then you’re probably not doing it right! Don’t get discouraged too easily Give yourself a reward (eat some pizza, go to a movie, etc.) after a good practice session. This will help you to tough it out through the frustrating times, and you’ll be a better player for it.
14. Ignoring your frustrations
On the other hand, getting frustrated can also be seen as a signal that your body or your subconscious is sending to your active mind. If you find yourself getting perpetually frustrated by the same passage every time put work on it, take a step back and think about how you’re approaching the problematic passage. Is there another way to solve this puzzle? Be creative! If one approach doesn’t work, keep searching for one that does.
This one kind of ties in to number 12. Just as practicing too little causes problems, getting too hardcore with your practice schedule can backfire and cause just as many problems as it solves. Everyone has a different reaction to heavy practicing–some swear by it and others never do more than a couple of hours in a day. Both approaches (hardcore and moderate) seem to produce successful results, so experiment and see what works for you. Just don’t forget to come up for air once in a while and reevaluate how you’re approaching your practice sessions.