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On Practicing - Part VI, "Practice Hygiene"

Welcome back to the blog and thanks for reading! This installment of my discussion of Ricardo Iznaola’s “On Practicing” is on the topic of how to strategize your practice. The chapter is broken down into two sections: Materials and Time Allocation.


This section is a bit fundamental, so I’ll just gloss over it a bit. The materials in reference are as follows:

1. Exercises - To develop particular technical functions out of context of music.

2. Etudes - To develop particular technical functions in context of music

3. Repertoire - The final “artistic goal” of using the technique developed to convey your artistry to an audience.

That’s pretty basic, but what comes next is an important reminder. We cannot acquire and develop a high level of technical virtuosity by simply playing the repertoire. That would be like an athlete who trains for professional sports solely by playing scrimmage games. We MUST isolate technique out of context of our repertoire in order to facilitate a strong, fundamental understanding of the mechanics behind the motion. With that said, is it completely acceptable (in fact I encourage my students to do this) to isolate passages from repertoire and create your own technical exercises based on that material. That fosters a sense of creativity for the student while encouraging the isolated focus on technique.

Once you attain an advanced level of technical capabilities, then your technique might be maintained or even improved simply through the study of repertoire. Note that the advanced level mentioned above is one that takes not only years to achieve, but also years of performance for you to truly understand what level your technique has reached.

Time Allocation.

This is important. Every musician has a slightly different take on this, but how do you strategize your practice? How long do you practice for? I get asked each of those questions at least once a week. Iznaola has a fantastic answer for both of these. Most people strategize on a day-to-day basis. I want to do X,Y, and Z today. But Iznaola recommends planning out your entire week. This gives you a “bigger picture” of what you need to accomplish in the next six days (Iznaola defines a practice week as six days, with the seventh day being a day of rest). You now have six days to accomplish your tasks instead of just the few hours you would have in one day.

Your daily practice time is how you will delegate your short-term, daily goals that are in service of what you want to accomplish for the week. Iznaola makes the claim that the college level/professional student needs to average 2-3 hours a day in order to see consistent results. He also says that averaging more than 5-6 hours a day will start producing diminishing returns. Here’s the important thing about practice time: make sure to take plenty of breaks.The length of your break is best determined by you, but I’ve always believed (and Iznaola backs me up on this) that for every hour you practice you should take a 10-15 minute break. Physically, after 45-60 minutes of intense practice, your muscles and joints are beginning to reach capacity. Overextending your hands is the LAST thing you want. Mentally, if you’re truly focused, your mind will begin to check out after that period of time. Give your head a rest just like your hands. You’ll come back feeling rejuvenated and ready to tackle any issue put in front of you.

Here’s a personal story. In college, I really struggled to find my perfect practice routine. So, one semester I experimented and decided to set a limit to my practice of 2.5 hours per day. At the time, that was the best practice I had ever had. I was focused, determined, and motivated. I think the secret was that knowing I only had 2.5 hours to practice, I didn’t waste much time. I had recognized the importance of setting realistic daily, weekly and monthly goals and I had created a plan for achieving those goals knowing within my parameters. That was a very eye-opening semester for me and it’s a model that I often return to when I know my time is limited by life’s natural obligations.

That’s my spiel for the week. Strategize your time, take breaks, and think about your weekly plan. Let me know how this works for you in the comments!

Stay tuned for next week’s post on the topic of problem solving. Thanks again for reading and if you liked this feel free to share with your friends, family, or anyone else who you’d think could benefit from this discussion.

- JB

PS - Here's a fun picture of me and the Accra String Quartet changing up their practice routine and goofing around (sometimes a very needed moment) before the performance at my festival in Ghana!


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