The Art of Practicing: How to Enjoy the Process


by Christine Shin

Regardless of age, ability or performance medium, practicing can sometimes feel like a chore. The difference between “making music” and wrestling to bring a piece of music under our control can be painful and frustrating. Fortunately there are some time-tested ways to close that gap, making the process of practicing music more enjoyable.


Playing music we’ve mastered can be an ecstatic experience of fluency and effortless expression. That’s what we’re in it for. But practicing new material often feels like the very opposite: graceless, halting, uncertain, clumsy. Amateurish. We don’t like the way we sound when practicing new material, but more to the point, we don’t like the way it feels. And when we’re practicing something new, we’d swear it will never, ever cross that boundary into fluency.

One of the simplest remedies for this is keeping a piece handy that was once a hair-pulling, teeth-gnashing ordeal to get through, but is now a piece of cake. Play through it with your eyes closed. Ooh and ahh over your rediscovered ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Now return to your current difficulties, knowing they will indeed be transcended.


In addition to fluency, we want to feel accomplishment. Setting goals that are too large can be disheartening because they delay that feeling of success for too long. Break large goals into smaller, specific objectives—this phrase, that measure, this lick, the left hand part only—and savor the accomplishment all the more often.


Mix up your practice session as much as possible in as many ways as possible—easy and difficult, old hat and new challenge, classical and popular, fast and slow. Always include some time on your fun and fluent pieces—but don’t let that eat into your actual practicing too much. You can’t have any ice cream until you eat at least some of your peas.


Never just sit down and start playing without a plan. Otherwise you’re faced with an enormous span of practice time that will proceed by minutes through ill-defined territory. Nothing helps you forget the tick of the clock like a plan that breaks the session into…


How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Break up a large block of practice into smaller bites with defined limits, specific objectives, and rewards at each break. I’ll work for thirty minutes. By the end of that time I will have that section from 13 to 54 nailed to the wall! Then I’ll have a yummy cup of tea and play the Brubeck piece for the next thirty minutes before turning to the Ginastera.


Set an absurd challenge for yourself just for fun, like double tempo in a given passage, or all staccato in a fast passage.


Most important of all: when you truly hit that emotional wall in a practice session—you all know what I’m talking about—stand up and walk away. Take a walk. Read a magazine. Renew yourself in whatever way works for you. Making music can sometimes be difficult, especially in the early stages of working on a piece. No need to deny that. Just know that it’s a normal part of the process, and go reward yourself for recognizing it.

When you come back, start with a friendly piece, then turn back to your elephant, one bite at a time.

© Christine E. Shin.