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3 Common Practice Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

As a young teacher, one of the things I learned very quickly is that it is not enough to tell a student what to practice - I must also teach them how to practice. This may seem like common sense, but it was somewhat of a revelation for me - perhaps because growing up, I was one of the weird ones who actually enjoyed practicing.

As I have been growing my studio and becoming exposed to different types of learners, I am starting to appreciate that most beginning students still need guidance when it comes to establishing healthy practice patterns. I have also observed that some of my students share similar struggles when it comes to practicing.

Here are the 3 most common practice errors I see in my students. (Fellow music teachers, can you relate?)

1. The Drive-by - Going through everything once on your practice list and calling it a day.

I heard one music teacher refer to this style of practicing as "bone-head practicing" - that is, going through the motions without analyzing what it is you are doing.

How to avoid: Be very intentional about what you are practicing. Before you settle in to practice, write down your goals, or simply think about what you want to accomplish as you approach each piece. Specificity is key. "Practice the Bb scale, playing every note twice at 80 BPM" is a better goal than "practice the Bb scale." If you are struggling to identify specific practice goals, talk to your teacher - he or she would love to help you set goals!

2. The Speed Demon - Playing through music faster than you are ready to play it

I remember hearing a former teacher say, "Everyone under the age of 40 practices too fast." (That would include myself - for at least another 14 years!) Practicing a passage too quickly can actually be more inefficient because there is a higher chance you may be reinforcing mistakes (e.g., wrong notes). It is better to spend five focused minutes building a solid foundation and speeding up gradually than to learn a passage sloppily and spend even longer un-learning wrong notes.

How to avoid:

When faced with a particular note-y run, resist the urge to fly right through it. Take a couple minutes to listen - really listen - to your sound. Can you hear all the notes? Is the rhythm even? Do any particular notes stick out? If you're not satisfied, slow it down significantly and use the "notch by notch" method. Start at 60, then inch it up to 69, then 72. Each change should be almost imperceptible. If you start making mistakes at a certain tempo, bring it back down again and repeat, repeat, repeat. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the key to playing fast is to play slow!

3. The One and Done - Practicing one or two days a week.

Imagine making a New Year's resolution to become more fit - and then only going to the gym once a week. Unfortunately, many students approach their weekly practice this way. But without consistent effort, transformation just isn't going to happen.

How to avoid:

Map out your week. Decide what days you are going to practice, and then stick to the schedule. Set reminders on your phone, or designate a fellow musician as an accountability partner. Aim for a minimum of 5 days of practice a week.

If you are feeling burnt-out or starting to dread picking up your instrument, some time away from it might be healthy. I'm a professional, and even I can admit to needing the occasional weekend off.

What we musicians really need is an overly-involved mascot like the Duo Lingo Owl to provide us with some motivation.

A final note on practicing

As a teacher of mostly beginning and intermediate students, I am much more concerned with the quality and frequency of practice than I am the specific music they looked at. I would much rather my student say in their lesson, "I only worked on one assignment this week, but I practiced it every day for 15 minutes" than "I practiced everything for an hour on Friday." The former shows me that this student was intentional and focused in their practice sessions, and the consistency proves that they take their musical development seriously.

When it comes to music, practice doesn't make perfect - perfect practice makes perfect.

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