Have A Plan
It is easy to get lost in minutes or hours of meaningless practice when we approach our sessions without a plan. A practice plan usually is centered around a musical piece (or pieces) that we are studying and the concepts that we are currently striving to master within that piece. We should start with warm-ups that develop tone, dexterity and flexibility. Incorporating warm-ups that are related to the difficult concepts of the main piece helps to center our practice. Finding warm-ups that relate to the focus concepts of the piece is surprisingly easy, but implementing that focus while playing the warm-ups is often difficult to remember.
Scales, for example, can be used to reinforce tone, intonation, knowledge of key signature, dexterity and many other skills. However, scales can easily turn into rote exercises that we run through thoughtlessly. To maintain effectiveness we must concentrate on the desired skill and deliberately develop it while playing the scales.
Keeping A Journal
Keeping a journal is a huge aid in maintaining focus. Seeing the warm-ups and practice goals written down helps us to remember what we did last session and what we should do now. We can monitor our progress in each area of practice and easily determine when a concept is mastered. Within the piece, we can remember which sections we were focusing on last time and keep a record of further progress.
Work In Sections
Breaking the piece into sections gives us a logical format for progressing to completion. The human brain retains small chunks of information much more effectively than large strings of data. This is the reason why we separate seven digit phone numbers into a group of three and a group of four digits. Separating a musical piece into sections aids us in developing a clear practice strategy for mastering the piece. The progress within each section can be monitored within one's journal. Smaller sections can be eventually combined into larger sections until the piece is finally performed as a whole.
When studying a piece of music in this way it is important to understand the form and musical patterns contained within the music. All music is composed of patterns. This is the fundamental element that causes music to be so memorable. Breaking the piece into sections that correspond to the musical patterns will aid us in understanding, learning and remembering the music. While practicing this way we will often find patterns that repeat throughout the music. Identifying these repeated patterns will further aid in efficiency.
Another key to effective practice is the carful monitoring of tempo. We will perform whatever we practice. Many people (including myself at times) practice difficult passages at a tempo that is too fast. This prevents them from achieving true mastery of the passage. It is important to practice difficult passages at a slow enough tempo to allow yourself to achieve mastery of the passage. It is easier to play the pitches, rhythms, dynamics, articulations, etc. correctly at a slow tempo and then gradually increase the tempo. Once those other elements are practiced incorrectly, the mistake becomes ingrained in our mind and is difficult to remove. Journaling metronome settings helps to achieve this gradual increase.
The other variable (beside tempo) that can be manipulated while practicing is section size. Difficult passages are already examples of this, since they are isolated sections within a larger section of the piece. Isolating these passages in our practice helps to gain mastery more efficiently since repetition is not wasted on measures that we have already mastered. Breaking these passages down into smaller sections can make them more accessible (or digestible). Once mastered, these smaller sections can be combine into larger ones, and then the entire passage. The correct combination of tempo variation and section size can make any passage learnable.
Balancing Practice And Performance
Many of the things mentioned above (sectional work, tempo, ...) pertain to learning new pieces of music. We must also practice performing in order to become good performers. Once we have learned the sections of a piece of music, brought them up to performance tempo and combined them, we need to practice performing the piece straight through. This step is where most beginning students start. They play through every piece without breaking it up and employing the practice strategies we have discussed. However, one can also error on the other side of things and get caught up with focusing only on sectional work. It is important to work toward an end goal and take the time to apply the final polish to our performance. Playing through a piece (after it has been correctly rehearsed) presents its own problems of flow, continuity and endurance. Once these elements are mastered, the piece is ready for public performance.
Balancing Work And Fun
This topic is somewhat related to the last one since performance is usually the fun element of our studies. The feeling one gets when comfortably and expressively performing a beautiful piece of music in front of an audience is extremely rewarding. This reward is what pushes us through the daily grind of diligent practice. Maintaining a balance between the grind and the reward is important. If our schedule consists of mostly performance and little practice we will not advance in our skill (and my even lose some skill). If our schedule is skewed in the opposite direction, we may become burnt out. To quote The Shining, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." One way to prevent this is to mix the review of finished pieces in with the study of new ones. Another is to look for an ample amount of opportunities for public performance (even if it is house concerts for friends and family). Finally, work some straight fun time into your musical schedule. This could consist of fooling around and exploring sounds on your instrument. It could also be playing along with recordings of your favorite songs, or getting together with some friends or family members and jamming. These are the moments that inspire us to continue in our practice