THE FLUTE NERD blog

Practice Smart Practicing

What exactly is ‘practicing’ and why do we need to be smart about it as we learn the flute?

There’s a saying people love to throw around: it takes 10,000 hours of practice to make you a master at something.

It’s rubbish. Sorry.

I’m not even going to touch on the fact that ‘10,000’ is a completely arbitrary number that was thrown out because it’s just satisfying high but round, but the suggestion that all it takes to become a master is an oversimplification at best.

You could practice for a bazillion (speaking of arbitrary, made-up numbers) hours and still never master a skill… if you’re not practicing the right things.

Mastery requires more than time. It needs smart practicing.

What is practicing?

Everyone knows we are supposed to ‘practice’ if we are learning an instrument, but what exactly does that mean?

Essentially practicing is the solo work you put into your instrument, honing the skills you are learning by repetition. While you can rehearse with ensembles and learn in lessons, masterclasses or workshops, practicing is your alone time with the flute, absorbing all that information you picked up in those settings and working on your skills.

Practicing vs smart practicing

But I like to make a distinction between ‘practicing’ and ‘smart practicing’.

The first is mindless repetition. Doing things over and over because we’ve been told we need to, but not really understanding why or what the goals are (other than just ‘get better’).

Smart practicing, on the other hand, is intentional, focused, efficient, and productive practice. It’s not just repetition, it’s more a mode of learning that allows us to break down the components of a skill and then gradually build them up in an effective way.

It requires us to look at our practicing with intention, taking into account areas of difficulty, goals to be achieved and skills that need work. It’s analytical. It’s not just about doing things over and over until we get it right – although that can sometimes be necessary – it’s about breaking down the components of what we do in order to understand why and how we need to improve.

There are many different aspects to smart practicing, but here are some tips on how to make sure you get the most out your time spent learning the flute:

Set goals

Before you start practicing, it is important to set specific goals for yourself. What do you want to achieve with your practice? Do you want to learn a new piece of music, improve your technique, or work on your sight-reading?

Remember that playing goals are highly individual, what you want out of your flute playing may be very different than someone else, and that’s OK! They should also be flexible; as you grow and change, so should your goals.

Try to make sure that your goals are as SMART as your practice: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. For example, a goal like I want to get better at the flute is too vague and it isn’t achievable because we’ll never stop getting better. Instead, a goal like I want to be able to play Faure’s ‘Sicilienne’ by the end of the year, is very measurable, specific and achievable and time-bound.

Once you know what you want to achieve, you can tailor your practice session accordingly to make sure you’re maximising the benefits of the time.

Plan your practice

Once you have set your goals, it is time to plan your practice. This means deciding what you are going to practice, how you are going to practice it, and for how long.

It’s important to know how much time you have to spend practicing and then divide that time up in sections that will help you hit your various practice goals. It’s always a good idea to start with some kind of warm up and you should always practice some sort of scale or technique (trust me it’s worth the pain!), but then add time in your schedule for anything else that will help you hit your practice goals. For more examples of this, check out my post on creating a practice plan.

‘Chew the steak’

This is my favourite analogy to use. Imagine being served a giant tasty-looking steak (I’m still looking for a vegetarian version for this analogy, so suggestions are welcome!) No matter how tasty it looks, you would never dream of shoving the whole thing in your face in one go. You’d choke and die!

Instead, we cut off manageable little bites and chew them. And before you know it, you’ve finished the steak without choking on it!

It’s the same thing for our practice. If you try taking a new piece and shoving the whole thing in your face by trying to practice the whole thing in one go, you’ll crash and burn! But if you take small, manageable chunks, chew them over and over and over, you’ll discover you’ve finished the whole thing with ease!

This doesn’t just apply for pieces, but it works for any aspect of our playing. If you’re working on learning a new technique – say circular breathing – just focus on one-step at a time. Spend time ‘chewing’ it over before learning the next step, and you’ll pick up the full technique before you know it!

Read more about this technique on my other blog here.

Identify what needs the most work…

We don’t always need to practice everything in each practice session. Instead, you want to focus on the aspects of your playing that need the most work. This could be passages of a larger piece or it could be whole techniques.

For example, if your articulation is a bit messy, try to make dedicated time for it, and incorporate it in other bits of your practice (ie, make sure you practice your articulation while running through your scales).

Or maybe there’s two measures of difficult fingerings in an otherwise easy piece. Don’t play through the whole piece every time. Instead spend the time working through those couple of measures. While we should run through the whole piece sometimes, by ignoring the easy stuff the rest of the time, you can maximise the time you spend with just the parts you struggle with.

…and figure out the best way to tackle them

Once you’ve identified what needs the most work, you’ll want to make sure you find the most effective way to practice them. It’s very tempting to assume that just repeating the exercise or passage over and over again will magically fix the problem. But as Einstein is famous for saying: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

Instead, figure out what the root of the problem is and give yourself right tools to fix the problem.

If you struggle to keep the beat in a difficult rhythmic exercise, make sure you use a metronome to help you keep track of the beat.

Or if you struggle to work out the correct fingerings in a long passage, do solid, slow work to reinforce good muscle memory and identify where your fingers want to go wrong. If you just keep repeating the same mistake over and over, you’ll actually be practicing in the bad muscle memory!

Keep a practice journal

Keeping a practice journal is a great tool to help with smart practicing. It allows you to track what went well, what still needs some work, what exercises you’ve been working on and what should come next.

Even the simple act of physically writing things down has the mental affect of focusing our intention as it causes you to pause and assess the goals of the practice session.

Keep your practice space free from distractions

In these attention hungry times, it can be hard to allow your brain to focus on a single thing at a time, but it is crucial for your practicing. Try to find a comfortable place to practice and inform family members or flatmates that you wish to be left alone for a period of time. (Easier said than done, I know!)

Hide your phone! Or, if you use your phone for practicing (as a metronome, tuner, or playback), put it on airplane mode.

Don’t practice near TV or computer screens unless they’re switched off (moving images are impossible for the human brain to ignore… it’s weird, terrifying and fascinating all at the same time).

I like to treat my practice time as if it was my mental health time. Just as I would avoid distraction when I meditate, I allow myself to be fully present in my practice. If I’ve managed to stay focused, I can’t tell you what a difference it will have made to my playing that day!

Take breaks

It is important to take breaks throughout your practice session. Practicing for too long can cause mental fatigue, so breaks will help you stay more focused and gives you time to appropriately build up the muscles that will prevent injury. Everyone’s needs will be different, but a good rule of thumb is to take a break every 20-30 minutes.

Record yourself

It is important to evaluate your progress regularly. This will help you to see how you are improving and make sure that you are on track to achieve your goals. You can do this by recording yourself playing, playing for a teacher or friend, or simply listening back to your own recordings. When you can sit back and analyse your playing, you might notice different things. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in our playing that we can’t always listen with a fresh ear. There might be some mistakes that you just didn’t pick up on that then you can refocus your attention to in your practice.

I hope I’ve helped you figure out how we can maximise our progress by practicing smartly, but if you’d like a bit more help in planning your sessions, you can head over this my other post about designing your perfect practice plan.

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