How much time could you save if you could learn your pieces in 1/3 or 1/5 of the time?
Learning and improving fast is less to do with talent, and more to do with your method of practice. More exactly, the ability to set appropriate goals is the secret to supercharging your progress.
This post outlines an approach to setting goals in order to optimize learning repertoire. By mastering these principles, you can train yourself to learn the notes of a difficult piece of music within weeks –even days! However, you should keep in mind that, depending on the music, the interpretation and musical ideas of a piece can often take a lot longer to develop. I would not advise you to begin learning the Beethoven Violin Concerto two weeks before your concert – even if you were technically capable of doing so.
Goals: The foundation
The first aspect of practicing better is to have goals. Goals force us to clearly define what it is that we are trying to achieve and therefore helps focus and align our actions in the practice room. Without a clear goal, your efforts will be scattered and your mind, distracted.
Having clear goals is typical and generic advice, being repeated almost as often as the mantra ‘slow practice’. However, this post will explore one particular element of goal-setting that is often ignored – time.
The entire purpose of deliberate practice is to progress faster. In other words, we want to eliminate time wasting. One of the most powerful ways to do this is to actually tackle the process in reverse. Set a deadline for your goal and notice that your practice is forced to become more effective.
The easiest way to illustrate this concept is to think about the last time you had an assignment due. If you are like most people, you fall into one of two categories. The majority of us will leave the assignment until the very last minute and then cram overnight. Naturally, our inclination to procrastinate decreases as we approach the due date. This is of course, out of necessity.
The second type of student will tend to start working on the assignment immediately. Their logic is that by starting early, they can spread the workload evenly over the weeks and remove the need for last-minute stressful cramming.
Unfortunately, this tactic has one major flaw. Given a far-away deadline, we will naturally begin to over-inflate the goal by inventing more tasks to fill the time. Therefore, instead of spreading the workload, we end up increasing the workload subconsciously – only to focus our efforts properly when the deadline approaches.
The key to learning and progressing faster is to firstly understand that as human beings we respond to urgency over importance. In other words, we have to find a way to use our procrastinating and last-minute cramming nature in our favour.
Time Constraints and Deadline
“To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.”
~ Leonard Bernstein
The first way to do this is to schedule performances with set deadlines. Exams, competitions and concerts are all excellent ways to do this. If you need to perform a recital for an audience of 200 – you bet you won’t be procrastinating.
The problem is that it is unreasonable to cram for a competition the week before. That’s why these large landmark goals throughout your yearly calendar need to be broken down into smaller goals.
This is where you break down your larger goals into smaller, achievable steps. How far you want to go is up to you. Examples might include aiming to learn each movement by certain dates, or having small performances for friends and family leading up to the big concert.
In a way, having regular weekly lessons acts as a form of mid-sized goals, as you teacher will be constantly checking in on you.
Daily time constraints
This concept can be used on a micro scale as well. Esteemed pedagogue Robin Wilson suggests setting a time constraint for all your daily goals. For example, if you need to clean up the intonation in a particular page, set yourself a time limit. Rather than giving yourself unlimited time, challenge yourself to do so in 30 minutes.
In this way, you can start with breaking up your piece into small sections, giving yourself a time limit on practicing and learning these sections, and then eventually string them all together.
Try it out for yourself. In your practice journal, write down your three daily practice goals. Next to each one, designate a target time to achieve each goal. Then time yourself as you try to accomplish these goals in the given time!
Just short of enough time
Bernstein famously said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.” Adequate preparation and work is, of course, needed. However, there is danger in giving your self too much time.
Firstly, having not quite enough time forces you to prioritize the most important and essential elements in your practice. If you don’t have enough time to fix everything, you’ll be forced to fix those that are most important.
On the other hand, being overly prepared can be dangerous, as one can begin to obsess over minute and irrelevant details. This may also encourage a perfectionist mentality, where one becomes so obsessed in perfecting every detail that they will continue to delay deadlines due to fear of being imperfect. Committing to the deadline and resisting the urge to delay or procrastinate is a great antidote to this.
Eustress and Distress
As you become more accustomed to using time-constraints in your practice, you will develop an intuitive feel of how far you can push it. Often you will surprise yourself how much faster you can learn a piece of music simply by pushing yourself outside your comfort zone.
However, setting a deadline that is too ridiculous can often cause the reverse effect and cause you to panic. The difference in effect is in part to do with how realistic the goal is, but another big factor is your ability to cope with the stress.
Having time pressure creates stress, and depending on your tolerance level, this stress can be helpful or harmful.
There are two forms of stress – eustress and distress. Eustress is the kind of stress that makes you focused and excited. Distress, on the other hand, makes you anxious, frustrated and, well…distressed.
As you experiment with this tactic, always remain aware of how your mind is interpreting the stress. If you find yourself rushing in your practice, chances are you need to slow down, re-manage expectations or shift your mental perspective.
Firstly, you want to invest in your technical ability. Spending time on scales may seem like a waste of time compared to learning repertoire. However, in the long run, being able to get around your instrument effortlessly will save you hundreds of hours bashing your head against the wall as your try to learn difficult passages in your pieces. Make sure to set aside time in your practice everyday where you focus on developing your technique. Likewise, you should pick repertoire that is fitting of your current technical abilities. Trying to tackle pieces too far outside your scope can slow down your progress.
One of the paradoxes of making a deadline is that you will find yourself doing a lot more slow practice. Slow practice is infinitely helpful when it comes to learning new pieces but we often refuse to because it is boring. However, you have to always remember that practicing at speeds faster than that which you are ready is not only unconstructive but also potentially harmful for your technique. Use a metronome and practice at a tempo where you can consciously hear and correctly execute everything. Only after consistent correct repetitions should you increase the metronome tempo.
Memorise and Mental Practice
Next time you are on the bus – try this. Play the piece of music in your head, and even finger out the finger patterns as you do so. If there is a part where you forget what comes next, resist the temptation to run straight to the music to check. Instead, try to run a few simulations of what the music might be, almost as if you are a composer detective, tracing clues in the music. Check the music after making an educated guess. The process of engaging the mind to figure out the music forces you to make more associations with the patterns in the music from a compositional standpoint.
Listening to Recordings and Studying Scores
Sitting down with a score and a pair of headphones listening to multiple interpretations of a piece of music may not be the most exciting form of ‘practice’. However, listening to recordings accelerates the learning process and helps you learn the music aurally.
Ultimately, it’s about practicing in a way that produces results. Even if you don’t ‘make’ your deadline, the act of having one would have spurred much more focused practice than without. That’s why sometimes it’s good to apply for competitions even if you have no expectation or intention of winning.
Time is just one of the elements to consider when setting goals. If you want to learn more about the art of effective practicing, make sure to order a copy of the practice journal. By investing in good practice habits early on, you can potentially save years down the line trying to unlearn bad habits.
And as always – happy practicing!
The Practice Journal Co-Founder