A few years ago as I was searching the music library at the University of Central Florida in Orlando for a specific book, I happened upon another book that would help how I practice. Itʼs called The Musicianʼs Way by Gerald Klickstein. I read through it in two days, then went back and read it again, slower, and took notes. I highly recommend this book to any student: beginner, intermediate, or advanced.
The majority of students that I speak with about practicing struggle to find a rhythm in their sessions. Often it can take us years, and unfortunately years of trial and error, mistakes, and a few moments of “eureka!” to find a pattern that works for us. Ultimately, I believe there are tried and true methods of “how-to” practice that work for most musicians. Klicksteinʼs book outlines many issues and explains it methodically, logically, and in a way that allows the reader to explore each detail thoroughly. Some topics may not be applicable to some students, but it is a must read for all of my students of harp or piano for many reasons.
I took my time reading it so I could write out, in my own words, the message that was being communicated, how it spoke to me best and efficiently, and typed up these pages to look at each time I practiced the harp. These outlines never leave my music stand (or desk nearby), and remind me each day the best way to utilize my time efficiently for a great practice session, and how to practice.
I will share my notes with you here, but I urge you to read the book for yourself and find the words that speak to you and help you how to practice. Only then will you want to get to the practice room and be motivated to stay there.
You are now entering your creative temple.
Release Tension
Affirm the value of artistic work
Acknowledge the extraordinary opportunity before you to make music
"The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex, overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one" -Mark Twain

Habits of Excellence

  • Ease
    • Practice with your effort meter far out of the struggle zone
  • Expressiveness
    • Permeate your practice with eloquence. Practice expressively.
  • Accuracy
    • Practice in small sections with great attention to detail
  • Rhythmic vitality
    • Vitality in rhythm results with forward momentum
  • Beautiful tone
    • Paint a picture with your notes
  • Focused Attention
    • Keep a calm, alert disposition when practicing
  • Positive Attitude
    • Regard challenges as opportunities for learning

Starting New Material

  • Get an Overview

    • Listen to recordings (if possible). YouTube is a big, wondrous thing for current musicians. Use it! Slowly sight-read the piece.

    • Research background information on piece, composer, etc.

    • Prepare the score: number measures, delineate sections with lettered boxes,

    • Identify tricky spots with brackets, asterisks, etc.

  • Analyze and map the score

    • Capture mood, style, tempo

    • Shape dynamics

    • Color the tone

    • Mold Articulation

    • Contour the meter/ drive the rhythm

    • Express the form

    • Locate phrase boundaries and dramatic peaks

  • Map the technique

    • Pencil in fingerings (and brackets, and pedal markings)

    • Image and vocalize (singing note names)

    • Convey your interpretation

  • Execute your map

    • Work in digestible portions

    • Manage a tempo that allows ease and awareness.

    • Use metronome

    • Image ahead

    • Execute 3-5 times until solid

    • Link sections together-overlap, create larger sections

  • Sit well and play through piece as if you were performing
  • Maintain consistent tempos and record sections of piece

Manage Repetition:

  • Insist on excellence with each repetition
  • Reject mindless repetition
    • Aim for growth each time
    • Build ease, awareness
    • Cultivate a reserve of mental/ physical capacity
    • Tap your surplus capacity to enhance expressiveness
  • Evaluate continuously

Solving Problems:

  • Recognize and isolate the challenge spot
  • Apply problem-solving techniques: vary rhythm, work from end, focus on components, omit then re-insert pitches, reconstruct, edit

Starting Developing Material:

  • 1. Refine interpretation:

    • Record yourself
    • Listen to professional recordings and performances
    • Study the score
    • Deepen emotional connections: what images, feelings or styles does the music evoke? What might listeners feel as you perform?
    • Experiment, exaggerate, push boundaries of interpretations
    • Schedule coaching sessions
  • Increase tempo

    • Isolate and solve problems that may arise due to increased tempo
    • Step up by small degrees
    • Image ahead in larger chunks
    • Simplify your technical choreography (fingerings) if needed
    • Invent exercises within the challenge spots
    • Do trial runs of larger sections
    • Manage repetition, never excessive
  • Renew and innovate

    • Rekindle affection for repertoire: what originally drew you to the piece? What does it offer that other pieces cannot?
    • Review in detail: treat it as “new material”, slowing tempos, work in small sections, etc.
    • Make meaning
    • Implement a practice rotation: cycle well-learned pieces through your practice to give others a rest.
  • Schedule performances

Taking Breaks:

  • Active breaks
    • Rest hands, but keep mind active on studying the music
  • Diverting breaks
    • Leave the practice room, or walk outside: opt for quiet spaces. Make them short, five minute breaks
  • Restorative breaks
    • Gentle movements to revitalize the body, then the mind. Light physical exercises: stretch arms above head, behind back, arm circles, forward bend.
Some research has said it takes between 21-40 days to establish a habit. I know, personally, a habit will not be established within my music studio unless I first write the task down on a piece of paper, and second, place that paper where I will read it every day.
With this outline on how to practice within reaching distance of my harp, I will read it each time I sit down to practice, I will be reminded of the things I can do to make my session efficient, and I will reap the benefits of a great practice each day.
Time is a precious thing, and should never be wasted, especially in the practice room where bad habits can be quickly established. Find your rhythm, and find what works best for you. The sooner you do this, the sooner you can keep your mind focused on what really matters: making music.
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