Being organized in your music practice is incredibly important.

Why? Well, all of us only have 24 hours in a day. And that time, once spent, is gone forever. We can’t get it back! So the time you intentionally spend practicing your instrument should be spent wisely.

One great to way to stay organized in your practice is to create a playlist of items that you want to practice. You can write these items down in a journal, or you can use Modacity to quickly and easily create a playlist. However, you may be wondering, “What kinds of practice items should I be practicing? What’s the best way to organize my playlist?”

Warm-Ups / Scales

A warm-up can be something easy to play or sing that helps you get into the flow of your practice. Lots of musicians like to start with physical stretches and breathing exercises before picking up their instruments. For vocalists, there are some lip trill techniques and vowel sounds that are sung to warm up the pipes. For instrumentalists, playing scales and arpeggios can help to loosen up muscles and get one thinking about technique. Doing these kinds of warm ups will make it much easier for you to move onto the “working” part where you analyze and try to solve problems.

Some musicians might have an entire playlist dedicated to just their warm-ups or scales to remind them of the steps they want to go through, or simply track time spent on each step. Others may decide to simply include “warm-up” as a playlist item to remind them to go through whatever their typical routine is, before moving on to the meat of their practice session.

Your Practice Goal

Once you’ve warmed up, the next step in your practice often includes specific pieces you’re working on. Depending on your practice goals will dictate very different approaches to practice. There are a number of different ways to attack your goals, but I’m going to focus on two primary ways. One way is based on creating a list of songs or pieces you want to work through. The other way is about creating a list of techniques you want to run through. The first way gives you a little more freedom in how you approach each piece. The second way revolves more around deep focus into specific pieces.

  • PERFORMANCE LISTS – If you’re simply working on a setlist of songs for an upcoming performance you may focus your playlist on that theme. For example, I may create a playlist called “Winter Concert” or “Upcoming Audition” and within my playlist, I would include all the pieces I needed to work on for my performance. A simple practice list would look like this:
    • Warm Up
    • Wozzeck
    • It. Kije
    • Scheherazade
    • Porgy & Bess
    • Stretch, Reflect, Tidy Up
  • DEEP FOCUS – These are playlists you might like to create when you want to run a specific piece or pieces through a skill circuit to really work out all the kinks. A playlist like this doesn’t need to focus on a specific list of songs, but rather the specific skills you like to run through on your piece. Working through the same piece with the different techniques. For example, your practice list might look like this:
    • Warm Up
    • Visualization
    • Long Tones
    • Slow Tempo
    • Fast Tempo
    • Soft Playing
    • Stretch, Reflect, Tidy Up

You can of course mix and match these types of practice sessions and playlists. Maybe you’ve decided to work on a few pieces, but want to specifically focus on one song because it’s giving you a little more trouble than the others. Or you’re doing a few songs all running through various sets of techniques. Regardless of how you choose to organize your time, the important part is that you make a plan and act on it. It’s so easy to just get carried away with a particular piece, or forget to work on something you had wanted to. By organizing your practice, and even setting timers so you don’t run out of time, you guarantee you’ll get through everything you wanted to work on.

Cool Down

Once you’ve gone through the meat of your practice session, you’re not quite done! Don’t just finish your last song and put your instrument down and move on with your life. Take a few minutes to stretch, all that playing his likely built up some tension. Spend some time reflecting on your practice – possibly taking some notes – about what you did well or maybe what you’d like to focus on for your next practice. Even consider setting up a plan for your next session based on this. And of course, once you’ve finished with a little stretching and reflection you can finally tidy up. The reason I like to include this in my playlists is that it helps me remember to take the time to do this. Often times if I don’t, I find myself more easily just moving on to the next part of my day!

Other things to think about when setting up your playlists.

1. Timed items with focused objectives

It’s probably easier to accomplish more in a short amount of time if you have a very focused objective. Furthermore, science says that we have a limited amount of willpower to draw upon anyway. So, just like it was mentioned before, make the most of the time you have. One way to do this is to set a timer for yourself while working on any section you’re having trouble with.  For example, maybe you’re having a hard time with two very tricky measures. Set your timer for a short period (like five or 10 minutes), and then work just on one problem in as many ways as you can. You could try breaking it down into even smaller and more manageable bits, like going super slow or changing the rhythm. If you don’t end up making any improvements to the trouble spot after the timer goes off, then make yourself a mental note to come back to that section again tomorrow. Chances are it will be much, much easier the next time around.

2. Take time to musically explore

Many musicians would agree that building intimacy with your instrument can help improve your music practice. One way to do this is to have a segment of free exploration in your practice session! Doing this can help you to expand your musical vocabulary and invite greater potential with the instrument. Free musical exploration can also be especially helpful if you start to get “bored” of practicing. Try singing, drumming out different rhythms, or learning a different song. There is a plethora of musical material out there to keep you inspired. Seek it out and try to apply it to your practice as much as possible.

3. Schedule in microbreaks

Mix frequent micro-breaks into your practice. During this time, roll your shoulders or otherwise refresh yourself. Make sure you don’t play or sing for more than 25 minutes before taking a 5-minute breather. Most of all, take regular timeouts even when you don’t feel tired. Fatigue is a signal that you’ve reached or exceeded your limits. By pausing before fatigue arises, you enhance both your wellbeing and your learning.

4. Review tomorrow’s practice goals

Just before you finish practicing, review the next day’s practice goals. You can do this by looking at your practice sheet or some scores while thinking about your objectives. And after that, to finish your practice session strong, you could recite an affirmation that galvanizes your commitment to your art: “I’m grateful to be able to make music.”

 

Well, there you have it! A brief rundown of how to approach and plan your practice session. I hope you found this article useful for your practice. If you have any questions don’t hesitate to reach out!

Marc Gelfo

Marc Gelfo

Marc has been practicing music for 30+ years. After applying cognitive science & computer science to French horn, Marc became an internationally touring symphony musician. His experience includes teaching and performing with thousands of musicians around the world, including the San Francisco Symphony.