Well, here you are. You've found yourself in a practice room. Maybe you have an hour to spend, maybe you have three. Your practice session is about to begin. Without thinking, you remove your instrument from its case, rosin your bow, fluff your mallets, and...
What happens next is perhaps the most important part of your musical existence today. It determines what does and does not get accomplished, what new material gets digested, what chunk of music gets memorized, which technical passage finally reaches mastery, and so on.
But those initial moments just before the practice session commences often end up being the beginning of nothing more than a mindless routine, one you've been doing every day for who knows how many years, and one that doesn't produce the rich results we desire from our practice sessions. You're on a precipice and your decisions in that moment set the tone for what can either be a productive or unproductive slice of your day.
So what determines your agenda for that session? What guarantees productivity?
In Part 1 of this blog series (The Practice Room — Part 1: Planning) we broke down how to set long term goals defined by actionable objectives. We translated those objectives into weekly Assignments and drilled down further to develop a daily practice + work plan. Assuming you've taken the pre-game seriously, the illustration I used at the beginning of this article won't happen to you. You'll have a very clear plan of attack for what to do once you hit the practice room.
But how do we best execute that plan? How do we stay focused and on task during our practice sessions? That's what the implementation stage of practice is all about. Let's take a closer look.
I'll play out a hypothetical practice session to give a concrete example of what this might look like. The beginning, at least in general terms, should be somewhat standard in that we'll first embrace some version of a warm up. Your warm up is necessary—it sets the tone mentally for the session, it gets the blood flowing, and it puts the muscles into motion as you prepare for what will be a more strenuous workout later in the time block. Done correctly, a proper warm up will put your mind and body in the best possible position from which to effectively practice. Done incorrectly (or worse, ignored), you risk injury.
Aim to start your warm up naturally, with mid-range physical motions or airflow. Allow your body and mind to get adjusted to the space you're inhabiting. You are literally "warming up" before engaging in more intense moments of practice. My warm up often lasts no longer than 5-7 minutes. I set a timer on my phone, cycle my way through a handful of mid-range motions (for me, as a percussionist, the motions are stroke-based), and focus on deep breathing/relaxation throughout the timespan. When my timer goes off I put down my sticks or mallets, engage in a brief but thorough routine of arm and hand stretches to further extend my range of motion, and close the chapter on the warm up part of my session. Anything longer than about 10 minutes and you're most likely not "warming up" anymore. You've mindlessly started to practice.
Warm ups are often immediately followed by technique work. In fact, these two activities are smashed together so frequently that many musicians actually don't appropriately differentiate them. And that can be dangerous, as these two portions of practice have different aims. Warm ups get us ready to play. Technique work, on the other hand, comprises intensive, hyper-specific routines focused on areas of our playing that we desire to strengthen. If not properly warmed up, diving directly into technique work puts us in a compromising position that risks causing injury. Technique work is challenging and can be tedious. It can be geared specifically towards the repertoire we're currently building or it can be completely independent. I enjoy a mix of the two. I like pinpointing a handful of technical obstacles that my current repertoire demands and coupling these with technical obstacles that are perhaps larger or more long-term.
Technique work will often segue into the primary thrust of the practice session, be it note learning in an etude, solidifying a new section of a solo, or continued chiseling away at an excerpt. Whatever this portion might be in terms of topic, it must be specific and intentional in terms of its implementation. If, in the planning phase (done prior to walking into the room), you determined the session's work to be focused on learning the A section of a new etude, then pour your time into that. Don't fall into the trap of absentmindedly reading ahead without purpose, or repping a lick you already know over and over, or playing WAY TOO FAST for no apparent reason, or....
The point is, the practice + work plan you set out is your well thought out guide. And your job in the implementation phase of practice is to execute those intentions as efficiently and effectively as possible, without distraction. As you close out your practice session you need to be able to look back and see what you've accomplished. Make your plan and implement it.
The Liquidrum Practice Journal entry below details what this might look like. The 'times' and 'to-do's' are predetermined before the day gets going. If you're rockin' the planning phase of practice then these important aspects are perfectly preset and include exactly the things needing attention that day. As you implement this plan, you record the specific 'material practiced' including your warm up, technique work, and subsequent primary focus. Be alive and responsive to appropriate lengths of time dedicated to each of these activities while doing them. Perhaps one session has a relatively short warm up routine followed by a more extensive technique portion. Maybe another session desperately needs more of the meat and potatoes work on learning music and therefore minimizes the technique portion. You be you. But be so very intentionally.
I know what you might be thinking...this seems so rigid! I'm a musician, not a robot!
I get it. I really do. I'm not advocating locking you up in a practice prison where every day is the same. We're just talking about establishing systems within which you can thrive and being mindful and present in the process. And I'm a huge fan of radically changing things up to keep your practice sessions fresh. Try different approaches, turn things on their heads, throw your 'technique + written music' approach out the window and improvise for a week. But make a plan to do it. AND THEN IMPLEMENT IT. No more wandering into a practice room, mindlessly opening up to the first page of a piece of music you've been practicing for weeks or months, and starting at the top...without thinking.
Make a plan and implement the plan. Whatever the plan may be. Good luck.
*If you would like to grab a copy of the newly-released Liquidrum Practice Journal, visit us here.
Todd Meehan is the founder of Liquidrum. He currently serves as the Associate Professor of Percussion and Division Director of Instrumental Studies at the Baylor University School of Music. Todd has performed as one half of the Meehan/ Perkins Duo since 2006 and was a founding member of So Percussion. He's played music all over the place.