As musicians we spend much of our lives practicing, even practicing just an hour a day is the equivalent of more than two weeks of solid practice, so it is paramount that our practice is something we feel is effective and worthwhile. It may not feel necessary, after all practice is a labor of love, but creating healthy practice rituals can help you not only to feel more in control of how you are spending your life, but also to achieve more in the time that you do have.

Whether you are just adopting your first practice habits or if you are a consistent night owl (to the chagrin of your neighbors or partner), here are 8 healthy practice rituals to help you create a more effective and enjoyable practice routine.

1. Cultivate Your Space

Most of the musicians I know have lived in some terrible conditions. I remember visiting a conservatoire colleague who rented couch space in the 16 square meter studio of a newly married couple, and I myself have lived in some questionable housing choices. The rule seems to go that if the living condition is questionable so too are the practice conditions, but somehow as we all graduate into better homes with better insulation, many of us leave the notion of an actual practice ‘space’ trailing far behind.

Cultivating your practice space is all about creating a frame of mind conducive to work, knowledge retention and creativity, and not many of us can create happily from a practice room that doubles up as a bathroom - no matter how good the acoustic might be! You do not need a full office from which to work but creating a small space in your place that is reserved solely for study will help your mind be ready when you sit down to work, and it will help keep away the distractions of the rest of the day so that you can get the most out of this productive time.

Try to keep your practice area somewhere in your house that gets some natural light and try to avoid facing the bed. This will help you keep energy flowing throughout your work.

2. Leave the Phone Elsewhere

These days most of us are constantly connected and being available 24/7 to the online world is something that I don’t think anybody would you argue is healthy for us especially considering most of the time we spend on social media is not social but instead is mindless scrolling.

Practice time should be dedicated to practice, after all this is time you have taken out of your day to improve something that means a lot to you. Leave your phone in another room, or if you are worried to miss something important, at least leave the phone on loud but faced down at least a few meters away from you.

3. Warm Up

The most important practice ritual to start TODAY. If you do not yet have a warm-up routine for your practice session now is the time to make one. With injury on the rise among classical musicians, and musician’s general physical health at an all-time low, it is of absolute importance that you start to warm up your muscles gently before you jump into practice.

Here are some exercises you can try, recommended by BAPAM to get your body in a ready state to start working.

4. Take Breaks

Taking breaks is not just important for your arms and fingers to recover, reset and rest from the strenuous physical exertion you are putting them through, your mind also needs to rest frequently in order to refocus on the passage you are practicing.

Ideally a short 5-minute break to step away from the instrument and shake your body out every 20 minutes is the perfect schedule to start working with. This can be adjusted as you figure out what is best for you.

5. Set your goals

What is practice without a goal in mind? Set your goals according to the old high school acronym SMART; Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and anchored to a Time frame. Even though you may feel like you are wasting time in the beginning, setting goals in this manner will help you to understand the direction you are moving in with your work and help you to streamline the amount of work needed to achieve what you want to.

In almost no time at all you will see that your practice begins to have purpose and your progress will appear to be more measurable!

6. Swap critique for striving

A practice ritual to start right from the beginning. So many of us who had a close relationship with our first teachers find ourselves in the vicious cycle of criticism - cluelessness - criticism as we ease into our musical careers.

Practice is about rehearsing the things we want to happen, not diagnosing the problems that appear to occur ‘naturally’ in our playing. Practice setting off with this in mind and prepare to play through your first notes instead of rushing right in and waiting until a mistake occurs. A thoughtful practice ritual will always be more efficient than one that relies on criticism and judgement.

7. Concentrate

Sounds easy, but concentrating - truly concentrating, is something that many of us do rarely in our practice. Once you have set your goals and you are working from a thought process of anticipation rather than diagnosis it is now time to truly concentrate on the motion of the hands, on the sound you are creating and on the motions that drive success.

8. Know when to Stop

Practice can be addictive and obsessive and often that is not because we are enjoying it so much. It can be easy to fall into the cycle of fatigue causing less engaged playing, causing mistakes, causing fatigue for hours on end. So knowing when to stop is essential to a healthy practice routine. Even practice sessions broken up into 6x20 minute sessions with breaks in between are exhausting, so you must learn to realize when your body and your mind need to stop.

Productivity and achievement are all about finding balance with your work schedule, not about time spent in the practice room. Take your play as seriously as your work and you will reap the rewards in your mind’s sharpness and your body’s ability to actively respond.

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Dave McLellan

Concert & Chamber Guitarist

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