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The Not-To-Do List for Musicians: 9 Bad Practice Habits to Stop Now

December 11, 2016 Eddy Chen

After 17 years of violin playing, I’ve come to learn that often it’s not what you do in the practice room, but what you DON’T DO that counts. Therefore, I’ve decided to compile a list of 9 things NOT-TO-DO in the practice room. 

  1. Do not answer phone calls or reply to messages

Switch your phone to airplane mode when you practice. Even if you don’t respond, simply seeing the notifications can be enough to throw you off course. The cute kitten video your friend tagged you in can wait. 

What finally made me decide to cut off all technology (well, except for my tuner and metronome) was when I discovered the difference between time and attention. Practicing a musical instrument requires a deep level of concentration. Responding to a message may only take ten seconds, but that might be all it takes to break your flow of concentration.

 Let’s say it takes you 20 minutes of playing before you’re in a flow state where your brain is learning optimally. If something was to interrupt your focus, you now have to spend another 20 minutes to return to the same headspace. ­­That’s a costly interruption.

  1. Do not practice without breaks

Constant interruptions will break your concentration, but the reverse also holds true. Being human, it’s inevitable that our attention begins to fade after extended hours of practice. Continuing to practice after your attention is depleted not only wastes time, but also creates the risk of unconsciously learning bad habits. Who knew that coffee break would actually IMPROVE your intonation?

As to how often one should break, a common recommendation is to take a short one every 45 minutes – but really it’s up to you to notice when your attention is fading. If you find yourself bashing through pieces in autopilot mode, consider taking a break. But be honest with yourself – don’t use this as an excuse to be lazy and procrastinate. 

  1. Do not play through pieces mindlessly

Playing through pieces mindlessly can be a sign that you should take a break. Other times, however, it signals a deeper issue: lack of intention. The best musicians walk into the practice room with a clear goal of what they want to achieve. They approach practice with a proactive mindset. It’s not uncommon to see great musicians spend an hour on a scale, or a few bars of music.

So unless your intention is to practice performing (see point 7), consider slowing down, or targeting specific problem areas. By giving yourself the space to reflect and analyze, you allow yourself the necessary awareness to improve faster.

And I know we’ve all done this before, but if you find yourself hopping from piece to piece, even repertoire that you are not currently learning – you may have become passive in your practice. Pause, think about what you are trying to achieve, and then go for it! 

  1. Do not repeat mindlessly

Similar to the previous point, the best practicers are good at asking the right questions. If a particularly tricky question resists improvement upon several repetitions, stop. Frantically looping the passage over and over like a broken CD is rarely the answer.

Instead, take a deep breath, relax your muscles and gather your thoughts. Analyse the problem. Try a different approach, listen, and compare the results. If you are truly stumped, ask your teacher. Mindless repetition is a form of lazy thinking.

  1. Do not indulge in negativity

We all experience feelings of self-doubt. If you haven’t hated yourself completely, you probably haven’t tried pushing yourself to the ends of your artistic capabilities.

It’s important not to dwell on the negativity too long. Initially, negative feelings may act as a source of motivation. An embarrassing performance may temporary motivate you to practice more.

But there soon comes a point where the negativity no longer helps, and instead only serves to cripple your self esteem. At this point, rather than indulging in these emotions, try to take an objective perspective.

Instead of thinking, “Why can’t I ever play in tune?” try asking, “Was the note flat or sharp?” “How can I play the note in tune more consistently,” or even “Is there any resources out there on aural training?”

It’s not that negative thoughts are ‘evil’. We are all human and we all experience these emotions. The difference is whether one chooses to indulge in them, or let go of them to focus on improving. 

On a side-tangent, be aware of gossip and bad-mouthing. I’ve noticed that the very best rarely go around criticizing others. When they criticize, it is generally coming from a place of trying to help. The mediocre indulge in gossip because it allows them to feel superior without having to go through the hard work.

  1. Do not obsess over the theory

 Just as mindlessly practicing can be bad, over-analyzing is equally harmful. Particularly in adult players, it’s easy to become obsessed with theory and the ‘right’ way to do things.

Music is ultimately an art and not a science (even though there are scientific principles behind how sound is made). At the end of the day, it is the music that matters. Let the end goal – your ideal vision of how you want the music to sound – guide you. The theory is only a guide, a means to that end.

This is why with any technical or theoretical rule out there, you will almost always find an amazing and successful musician who breaks that rule. It’s also why two teachers can, and often will give completely contradicting advice.

On a related note, the human brain evolved firstly to learn pre-verbally. While the development of language allowed us to communicate and learn more abstract concepts, much of our learning still takes place on a pre-verbal level. This is why children will often act as their parents act, rather than do what they are told.

How does this translate to music making? Well, be sure to listen to great recordings and attend live concerts. The subconscious mind’s ability to learn through mirror neurons and imitation should not be underestimated. Likewise, be wary of paralysis by analysis. If you catch yourself over-thinking, switch your focus from ‘theories’ to your senses: the sounds you are hearing, and the sensations in your body.

  1. Do not forget to perform 

This might sound like a contradiction to point three, but it’s not. Many of the great pedagogues advise breaking up your practice into different categories: technique, repertoire building and performance. It’s important not to neglect the performance practice, as you can’t expect to perform a concerto on stage if you haven’t at least performed it in the practice room many times. During this time, try not to stop even if you make mistakes. If you can, try to perform regularly in front of friends and family as well. Doing so will teach you to become a better performer.

  1. Do not work on everything at once

From a skill-building perspective, we learn best by focusing on one skill at a time. Trying to improve thirty different elements at the same time will overwhelm your mind, and none of the lessons will stick. On the contrary, learning to prioritize the most important and relevant skill can produce massive results. Having a great teacher who knows how to sequence skill-building is invaluable in this regard. 

  1. Do not be impatient

The best musicians respect that mastering an instrument is an extremely difficult task. Therefore, they are willing to put in the time and hours to slowly improve 1% every day. Not only that, but they are able to keep a positive and empowering outlook and retain a love for their instrument even in face of these difficulties.

You must resist the urge to become frustrated and try to force results when you are not ready. Doing so will often make you compensate through tension or bad technique. You will also lack the patience to do the necessary amount of repetitions to truly learn a movement or technique deeply, which in the long run translates to more time spent relearning. Take inspiration from other players, but resist the urge to skip walking your own path of progression in order to match their pace. Be the tortoise, and don’t worry about the hare. Slow and steady wins the race! 

Are there any more ‘no-no's' on your list?

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The Practice Journal is designed to help you become the best musician you can be. The journal shares the tactics and practice strategies of world-class soloists and pedagogues. The nuggets of wisdom contained within has changed both our lives, and we wish the same for you.


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2 comments

  • Yvette Kraft

    Feb 13, 2017

    10. Do not neglect your Practice Journal :D

  • Doug

    Jan 16, 2017

    Building on #4 a bit, for difficult passages, try creating alternate melodic phrases using the same notes. Sometimes a popular tune comes out that you feel relaxed playing—you are in the process building the muscle memory to accurately stike these notes.


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