To really make the most of your time each day you want an effective routine that keeps you engaged and gradually expands your ability.
Be consistent each day
Think about when in the day would be your most consistently productive time to practice your instrument and set aside that time each day. Practicing should become part of your routine so that there is no way to talk yourself into avoiding it and you get into the habit of just going to your instrument without thought or effort. As much as you love playing your instrument, there will be days when something else is more appealing. Establishing a habit gets the instrument into your hands each day and that is half the battle won. If something else really is pressing, make your practice time shorter but keep to your time each day
Create goals for the week and focus on them each day. The length of time that you practice isn’t as important as consistent effort repeated day after day. Fifteen minutes each day can be as helpful as an hour if you make those fifteen minutes count towards what is really important to improve your playing.
Create a routine
Begin with warm ups. Open strings give you a chance to check bowhold, posture, stance, breathing, muscle tension etc, as well as being a great warm-up. Progress to your scales and technical exercises. Begin slowly to warm up and strengthen your fingers.
Move onto your pieces, both your latest piece, and revision pieces that you can already play.
Play revision Pieces
Learning new pieces stretches the compass of our ability, but working on pieces we can already play correctly all the way through strengthens that ability. This is how we improve our base level of playing. Imagine one day being able to play a piece as hard as your most challenging piece all the way through perfectly with feeling. This is what we are working on when we practise our revision pieces. Whenever I have heard great artists play simple pieces like I have never heard them played before, I am reminded of just how impressive it is to keep strengthening this base level of playing. Sure, flashy and fast is fun, but never overlook the importance of being able to play a simple piece in a way that will wow your audience.
Have overall goals for your playing
Work on problems with your playing. This can be by listening to yourself playing and trying to fix tone, pitch, or bowing problems or it can be fixing certain spots in a scale or piece. Your goal is to improve your overall playing. Recording your playing or videoing yourself is the most honest way I know that we as musicians can give ourselves feedback. Be warned though, that it can take some getting used to. Most people are not accustomed to that much honesty!
Mark the problem spots
Find problem spots in your pieces or scales. There is rarely any need to work on an entire piece bit by bit. Play until you find a problem spot in your playing and then work on that section. Mark those spots with a star so you can go straight to them tomorrow. For orchestral music, make a note during rehearsal of where you need to practise with your pencil. It is very important that you do this immediately you have a chance. This can be while other sections of the orchestra are rehearsing, at break time or as you are packing up. Marking it while you’re still at rehearsal is important though, because what actually needs practice to be able to play well in your orchestra is often surprisingly different from what looks difficult and seems like it needs practice at home. You don’t want to practice your music all week, think you have it perfected, and then next week at rehearsal realise you’ve been focusing on all the wrong sections. Often its the counting, transitions or sectional entries that require more practice than the seemingly difficult parts.
Use small chunks of focused effort
Set a timer and set it for 3 minutes. Get out your notebook and look at your practice routine. Start with the first item on the list and choose a goal to start with. Start your timer and concentrate on your goal. Use the best practice techniques that you know to make the most improvement quickly. You only have 180 seconds so make each one count. When the timer goes off, leave that goal until the next practice session. Pick the item on your list, visualise a goal and start your timer again. Proceed like this through everything you want to improve for your next lesson. Break pieces into smaller chunks. As you get used to this method you will get a feel for how much to aim for in each three minute chunk. You want them small enough so that you make substantial improvements but large enough that you stay interested and each time wish you had some more time for that particular goal. Even though you know there is more you can do, move onto the next goal and know that tomorrow you will be back to make the most of your three minutes again. Stick with your plan and you will find yourself improving more rapidly than you thought possible.
Keep a consistent beat
Playing with a metronome as we play difficult pieces or passages is one of the most demanding practice techniques. It forces us to stay with a consistent beat and provides us with feedback about where we tend to wander away from the beat. When playing with a metronome it is important that the beat is loud and clear over the sound of your own playing. Especially when first learning to play with a metronome, we often need to play a little quieter and give more of our attention to the metronome than to our own playing. If you are new to using a metronome and finding it difficult to stay with the beat, try playing something simpler, a piece or etude that you can play from memory and put your awareness on the beat. Trust yourself to simply continue playing and focus on the beat, feeling it strongly inside yourself as you play. Once you can do that, challenge yourself by changing the tempo of the metronome. Try playing the piece at a speed you wouldn’t normally play it at. Try faster and try slower. Surprisingly, sometimes the hardest beat to stay with is a slower one. All of this practice will help you develop an unshakable inner sense of pulse that will make your playing stronger and more consistent and ultimately, easier and more pleasurable.
Finish with fun
Finish with something you enjoy playing and simply play rather than worry about technique. You’ve been working on your technique and now is the chance to just trust that it is working for you. As you improve you will find everything you have been concentrating on will come together for you in an effortless manner. This provides an relaxing and rewarding end to your practice time. Enjoy!
- Sassmannhaus on “Virtuous Moments” answers the questions “How much should I practise?” and “How can I accomplish the most in the time I have?”