8 Tips to Help You Practice Better
Don’t Play from Start to Finish! - The most common bad practice habit I see students make is simply playing a piece through several times. It is better to work on short passages or measures while focusing on a specific goal (ie. phrasing, intonation, sound quality, technique)
Break up your practice time - A 2-hour practice session should not be non-stop from start to finish. Instead, take regular breaks so you don’t lose concentration. A good rule of thumb is for every 30 minutes you should take a 5 minute break.
Repetition - Have you ever heard of the saying “Practice makes perfect”? This is generally good advice, however I have always liked to say “Practice makes PERMANENT”. If you practice with improper technique, you develop bad habits that will be hard to correct in the future. It is better to practice a passage slowly and carefully than rushing through and making mistakes.
Eliminate Distractions - Practicing well requires careful attention and concentration. A buzz of a text message or notification can break your focus. Students should have a practice space at home that is quiet and free from distractions
Use a Metronome - I love the metronome. It’s my worst enemy and best friend in the practice room. The regular clicking of the metronome not only helps you stay in time, but also brutally reveals any rushing or dragging tendencies you may have. The best way to practice with a metronome is to start slowly enough so that you can play a passage without making any mistakes. Then, increase the tempo by a small increment (ie. 50, 60, 70, etc.) and practice until you can play at the desired tempo. If your goal is to play a passage at 120 bpm, prepare the passage at 130 bpm or even 140 bpm! This surplus ensures that you are well prepared and can play with ease.
Listen to Recordings - Listening to recordings is vital to developing your musical interpretation. When you are learning a new piece, listen to recordings of ten different performers playing the same piece. Notice differences in tempi, dynamics, phrasing, vibrato, sound colors, etc. Which one stands out to you the most and why? What makes a performance more exciting/beautiful/expressive? Listening critically and asking questions is how you begin to develop a musical taste, which is essential to your musical artistry and interpretation.
Set Goals - Setting goals is a great way to keep yourself motivated in your practicing. Goals should be specific, realistic, and include deadlines.
Develop a Feedback Loop - One of the most important, yet difficult lessons to learn about practicing well is how to objectively criticize your own playing. An example of bad feedback is “I sound bad”. Is the playing out of tune? Is the tone scratchy or forced? Being specific and objective is important so you know which areas in your cello playing to focus on. A teacher can help point out mistakes or areas to improve, but the student needs to learn how to work independently to make the fastest progress.