Musicians' Health Collective

Musicians' Health Collective: Supporting the health of musicians (and normal people)

Summer Practice Resources for the Uninspired

Some folks practice at the computer...others at the TV.

Some folks practice at the computer...others at the TV.

Summer is a lovely time, in which students (and adults) are either busy with festivals or enjoying a peaceful break from school, teaching, or work.  It is also a very difficult time to get motivated to practice, especially when there's no immediate deadlines for either yourself or your students.  Summer music lessons can be a great way to accelerate students' progress, especially if they have other extra-curricular activities throughout the year, yet students often need to learn how to practice efficiently, and not just repeat things or play through repertoire when they feel like it.  Whether you're feeling unmotivated or you see your students' attention lagging, here are some suggestions (and additional resources) for improving the summer practice slump.

1.  View practice as a creative process, not as target practice.  How can you make lessons and practice more creative while still supporting long and short term goals?  You could have students do a few minutes of rhythms at the beginning or end of a lesson, play duets with them, improvise (see 5), challenge them to do scales in a new way, challenge them to make sounds in a certain way...there's no limit!  If a student is learning an orchestral piece, concerto, or sonata, challenge them to try to learn the other parts, or at least play through them. 

2.  Use time between passes/play throughs to reflect.  What's my goal with this passage or piece?  What worked well?  What didn't?  Why didn't something work well?  What can I try this time around to improve it?  Did that work?  Students often like to skip this part, so it can be great to challenge them to write these questions down in a lesson and ask them to take the process home.

3.  Quality over quantity.  An hour of solid, targeted, and focused practice is way more valuable than hours of scales played while watching tv or spacing out.  Have students keep a practice journal as to how much they practice, how well they focused, and what improved (or didn't).  Using a timer can be really helpful to keep on target, whether it's a 10 minute mini-practice session or a 30 minute targeted session.

Although this is specific to band, I've definitely had students that fit the bill.

Although this is specific to band, I've definitely had students that fit the bill.

4.  Work on or play at least one piece that you really love, even if you're not going to perform it any time soon.  Summer is a nice chance to use music that students (especially young ones) love to help boost enthusiasm, even if it's pop or movie music.  I had a student that loved Miley Cyrus a few years ago (when she was still on the Disney Channel as Hannah Montana), so I transcribed a piece for him.  He ended up practicing it every day and improved in rhythm and note reading because he knew the song by ear.  Find something that you (or your students) want to learn or love to play, and make it a part of your day.

5.  Improvise...Yes, improvise.  This doesn't need to mean that you play a 12 bar blues or a structured fiddle improvisation, but think about how improvisation could enter your daily routine.  Maybe you warm up over a drone pitch in first position and make up the notes rather than do Schradieck or Sevick.  Maybe you take the rhythms from a challenging work and make up new material with the same rhythm.  You could learn new scale or mode material, start scales from the top notes and go down and then up, try scales in different styles, make up pieces in a style, and so forth.  This is also incredibly liberating and challenging for many students.  If someone is learning how to shift and play in position, have them try to make something up in third position.  If someone has a hard time keeping a consistent pulse, challenge them to walk and play something.  This goes back to point #1, but creative music-making is more fulfilling and turns a chore into a new and dynamic way to learn and engage more of your brain and body in this life-long practice.

6.  Look to music outside of your typical repertoire for inspiration.  Another thing I used to do is make up my own solos along with pop songs, or try to figure out the songs and chords by ear.  If you have a student who listens to lots of non-classical music, you might try challenging them to figure out the chords and melodies by ear.  This could include jazz, world music...really anything is the limit!   Dicatation and listening can be great ways to teach them rhythm by ear, identifying time signatures, and melody dictation.

7.  Notice what you do every day to warm-up, and don't do that.  If you're a string player, you  might always do handframe and scales.  What if you tried modes instead?  Or look at shifting?  Or try etudes that you mean to work on but never do?  This is where improvisation and creativity can really spice things up.

8.  Get over your fear of recording yourself.  It can be tempting to never record oneself, but truthfully, recording, albeit a painful process at times, can be incredibly telling.  Even if you're just working on scales, try recording yourself and noticing what's working well and what's not.  You might discover issues that you didn't know were there!  This is also great for students who have iphones, and can easily record themselves.  You might also have them record themselves and record you playing the same passage and observe the differences.

9.  Identify an issue in your playing that you'd like to improve upon.  For students, maybe ask them what their greatest strengths and weaknesses are right now.  Let's say that rhythm and tempo are issues- how can you integrate that into many different aspects of playing?  Have students walk along with recordings, have them clap rhythm exercises, play scales with the metronome at 20 or 25, and see if they can subdivide. 

10.  Look beyond your instrument.  It can easy to focus on our instruments as the sole object of practice and learning, but what about all those other topics we studied in school?  Score study, ear training, solfege, singing, harmony...if something isn't working for you or your student, thing outside of your instrument!  For intonation issues, trying singing things in different ways, and then imagining pitches and then playing.  If a passage is musically dry, try looking at the score for the harmonic content and color of a passage.  Look at what is going on culturally and historically at the time that a piece was written.  Have younger students draw a picture or write a story/poem that depicts a narrative of a piece.  Come up with your own narratives, and then be very specific about the sounds created.  This can also transfer over to the improvisation category- come up with a story and then see if you can improvise music to tell that story!  Give students listening homework related to their pieces or issues.  Practice and learning in a non-linear practice, and the more creative strategies we apply to learning, the more quickly and efficiently we will learn and retain information! (More importantly, it's more fun!)


Bulletproof Musician with Dr Noa Kageyama.  I love Dr Noa's work as both a psychologist and musician, and he has great strategies to improve practice, preparation, and performance.  He maintains a weekly blog as well as an online course addressing some of these issues.  If you're working on an audition or performance, the books by Don Greene are also excellent.

Mindset by Carol Dweck.  This a great book about how your mindset towards a test or task affects your long term growth and success.  It compares a growth mindset with a fixed mindset-very interesting and worth reading!

The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.  I'm partway through this, and it definitely supports the work in Mindset by saying that how we practice and learn affects our "talent."  "Natural ability" is not necessarily natural or innate, and can be improved, acquired, and accelerated. 

Passionate Practice by Margret Elson.  While this is not as revelatory as some of the other books here, it's still a nice addition.  It focuses quite a bit on visualization, which can be very helpful for the intermediate, advanced, and professional.

Practicing for Artistic Success by Burton Kaplan.  If you want to get real about how inefficiently you use your practice time, this book will reboot your approach.  With many different listed pitfalls and preparation strategies, you will leave with new ideas on what practicing means and how to do it better.

The Art of Practicing by Madeline Bruser.  I remember reading this in high school when it came out at the library, and being enthralled at her approach. 

The Perfect Wrong Note by William Westney.  This was one of the first books that really made me realize how valuable mistakes are, which may sound obvious, but wasn't at the time.  How we make mistakes and how we react to them is an essential part of the learning process. 

Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephen Nachmanovitch.   I haven't read this in a few years, but it's a great starting point for improvising and looking at the philosophy of creative classical music making.

Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians by Jeffrey Agrell.  One of the best classes I took at NEC was a class on improvisation in music education, and though we didn't use a textbook, we did many activities similar to the ones in this book and Agrell's other books.

There are probably 20-30 excellent books about music making, practice, and learning.  These are just a few of the ones that I own, but there are many more! 

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