The holidays are almost over, you’ve finished debating the merits of “twenty-ten” vs. “two thousand and ten”, and you’re nearly ready to start your early January crash diet. But one thing seems to have slipped your mind completely over the holidays – your practicing. Yes, the spring semester is almost upon us, along with its juries, recitals, RCM exams, master classes, and festivals. And while you’re about to restart your daily practice sessions with a vengeance, here are ten things to keep in mind this year as your improve your musical skills in the coming year:
1. Define your goals. What do you really want out of your encounter with your instrument? Solo enagements? First-class honors in your spring RCM/NMCP exams? The pride and satisfaction of improving your abilities over time? Or simply to bring musical enjoyment to others, and pretend you’re a rock star for the short time you’re on stage? Determining what you want out of your musical studies can in large part determine the rest of the journey.
2. Stick to a regular practice schedule. Now that you know what you want, hard work and regular practice are the surest way of getting there. The hardest part? Showing up every day and spending the time mastering your craft. Single-mindedness and dedication will in large part determine the outcome in a process where talent usually means less than the hard work required for others to think that you were talented in the first place.
3. Refine your practice process. Now that you’re showing up regularly to practice, you need to figure out exactly what to do each day in order to optimize your time. Do you need to take apart pieces in order to fix problems? Or do you need to run larger sections in order to put them back together again? What can you do to make the initial process of learning new pieces more efficient? Feel free to ask your teacher to assist you in managing the details of your practice routine for a clear path to success.
4. Take it to the people. Playing an instrument can be a worthwhile solitary pursuit, but it is the act of performing that really brings the music alive. Find and participate in as many performance situations as you can, whether they be festivals, salon concerts, studio recitals, competitions. And if you suffer from performance anxiety when on stage, there’s always one sure-fire way to tackle it: perform even more. The high that one experiences in the act of performing awesome music for an audience can be both rewarding and addictive.
5. Go on a diet – of listening. There is a saying in the arts that our accomplishments are created on the backs of those that came before us. Spend some time both devouring as many recordings as you can and going to concerts on a regular basis. Get to know the masters of yesteryear as well as the superstars of today. If you become a part of the performing culture of your chosen musical style, it will add an energy and passion to your musical endeavors that will help propel your playing to the next level.
6. Spend time on ear training. Can you hear the difference between a major and minor sixth? A diminished and dominant seventh chord? What about the distinctive sounds of plagal vs. authentic cadences? Developing the skills to discern these important musical elements will carry over into your own playing and will help open up a world of musical detail just waiting for you to hear it.
7. Get technical. Just as a sports team needs to learn the core skills of their sport before heading out into games, we musicians need to learn the value of repetitive practice of scales, chords, and arpeggios. And once you’re spent the time learning these exercises, you’ll not only be able to recognize these elements in musical compositions, but be on the road to virtuosity as well.
8. Learn the theory. Music might be a royal road to an individuals’ self-expression, but the component parts of any musical style require a sound theoretical basis as well. It might seem like a chore writing out scales, key signatures, counting note values, figuring out chord symbols, and memorizing Italian terms, but what you get out of it is a thorough knowledge of music that will have your intellect in the right place to allow your heart the freedom to truly express itself.
9. Learn the history. Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum, nor is it a universal language. Each musical style is part of a larger historical perspective that must be discovered and understood in order for it to come alive and stay relevant, whether you’re learning Mozart Sonatas, Italian opera, or contemporary jazz.
10. Learn to sight read. One of the greatest pleasures of being an accomplished musician is that of having the skills to read a piece of music for the very first time and already be able to give a good account of it. Having excellent sight reading skills also means that the amount of time you spend on the initial learning stages of a piece will be drastically reduced. This ability is not a natural one, and must be practiced, day after day, month after month, in order for it to come to fruition. The upside: picking up nearly any piece of music and having the satisfaction of being able to play it at first sight.
Have a great year and best of luck for your musical journey in 2010!