Whether you are looking for your first practice tips, have lost your practice mojo, or are a seasoned player looking for hints to further optimise your practice sessions, this five part series will help you take your practice methods back to basics to reassess if their foundations are as efficient as can be. 

Here, we’ll discuss what goes into a technical practice session and how to structure it to get the most out of your dedication. 

1. Decide which processes are being used 

For each practice session to be optimal, the first step must be to work out which mental systems are at work based on the goal we have in mind. In technical practice fewer external parameters are in place, we can use technique books, but this is not a necessary requirement. 

A very small and short process of decision making takes place at the beginning of each technical practice session, simply - What am I working on today? For most non-specific technical practice sessions, this question can be answered with one of the following; speed, synchronisation, orientation, horizontal movement, vertical movement or flexibility. 

Making a concrete decision for what you are going to work on alleviates you from further mental negotiation during the session, it also helps you to localise and improve on one element, which is ultimately a less taxing mental process than trying to improve a few elements whilst still half concentrating on others. 

The second mental process at work during a technique session is observation, this is key to a session like this, as most if not all of the work is observation of a mental process and a physical process and consequently a physical outcome, auditory outcome and visual outcome. 

In order to best use a technical session, observations need to be pre-emptive (“this mental cue will lead to this physical action which will lead to this physical, auditory and visual outcome”) and retrospective (“I thought this mental cue would lead to this physical action, but the physical, auditory or visual outcome was not as expected so I will thus change the mental cue slightly”) all within a few seconds of execution, which requires a high level of focus. It is best, therefore, to save technical practice for moments during the day when energy levels are high to avoid input and consolidation of cues that lead to undesired outcomes. 

2. Carve out a focus period 

In order to get the most out of a technical practice period, it should be just long enough to consolidate the movement you are trying to train without overexerting the body (leading to exercise failure due to physical fatigue) or letting your mind slip into non-focus-mode (leading to poor mental cues and thus unsatisfactory execution). 

Like almost anything in life, focus is a function that can be trained, but when starting out with planning technical practice sessions it should be kept in mind that most untrained focus time will span anywhere from 8-15 minutes. 

Plan to spend 2-3 minutes planning the next 8 minutes of work rigorously, 8 minutes of execution and then 2-3 minutes observing the efficacy of this 8 minute session. As a cue for this kind of observation it is useful to internally but intentionally ask and answer the following questions after each practice session: 

1. Did I feel that I had the time to accomplish my goal in this session? 

2. Were my energy and focus levels consistently high during this session? 

Adjust and scale your sessions in minute increments, for instance, if you felt that your energy levels were high during the session but that you did not have time to accomplish your goal, adjust your session from 8 minutes to 9, if the feeling persists, plan a session of 10 minutes etc. 

If however you feel that your energy levels were low and you did not accomplish your goal, shave a minute off of your practice session length and observe the change. 

3. Pre-organise your KPIs 

In business, one of the most important steps to ultimate success is deciding on KPIs, short for Key Performance Indicators. 

Simply, without a strategy for how to measure the success of your work and without a clear definition of what that success would look like, you can never achieve it! 

Deciding how you are going to measure the success of a technical practice session is no different, work out exactly how you are measuring the goal you are hoping to achieve or you run the risk of burning up your physical and mental resources while sailing right past the point you wanted to reach. 

Working out how you are going to measure the success of an exercise will also help plan your sessions as you can plan around the results you hope to see. 

When it comes to technical practice, it’s especially important to remember that unless you personally hope to achieve something from it, you really won’t get anything out of it. The reason so many players practice so much technique and the only clear outcome they achieve is dejection and injury is because most of the education systems we are used to in the music world value time spent in the practice room over carefully crafted plans for success. We have been sold an aesthetic of over work and productivity instead of a clear and purposeful sense of direction and dedication to taking small steps every single session. 

Luckily with just a few small mindset changes and a more planned approach to working, anyone can improve in every single technique session, so enjoy the burn of full focus and reap the wonderful rewards of committing to your own self improvement in each session!

Conclusion

Now that we understand how to assess new repertoire and structure practice chunks, we should be well on our way to using our practice time much more efficiently.

Learned something new from this post? Click here to check out the first part of this blog series, “technique”.

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Dave McLellan

Concert & Chamber Musician

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