Having decided on some short-, medium- and long-term goals, let’s think about how to structure your practice. This structuring could take written form by means of a practice diary or plan. But, if you are confident in your ability to remember what you’ve been practicing, how far through a goal you got, etc., don’t feel obliged to write down your plans. Personally I find that writing down my practice routine helps maintain focus, even if it’s just a few simple retrospective notes once I finish practicing or playing.
The fact is that there is no definitive answer as to how long you should spend on each goal each time you practice; it completely depends on how you are as a learner. The question that you need to ask yourself is: “how long do you think you can do a particular task before your focus drops below 100%.” If you can manage to stay focused on a single activity for let’s say an hour, then by all means do so and create a practice routine that works on one or two of your short-term goals. If you struggle to stay focused for longer periods, then it might be better to work on a greater quantity of short term goals, each for a shorter period of time, say 30 minutes. It goes without saying that the longer you work at something the greater your gains will be, but to make the most of your time you must be working with complete focus, whether that’s for 10 minutes or 1 hour. Let’s call this idea “Optimal Practice.”
Structuring you session
When I set my goals I like to ensure that I am covering a broad array of technique, musicality, and theory. Even if my medium-term goal is to be able to play a particular rudiment in a particular way, this may dictate the majority but not all of my practice time. If your medium-term goal is to play paradiddles with comfort, and your short-term goal is to feel comfortable with them at 80 beats per minute, a typical practice routine might look like this:
|Warm-up. Metronome workout. Rhythm pyramid from 1-8 and back down.||10 minutes.|
|Rudiments. Paradiddle 16th notes displacing accents across bar. 80bpm.||30 minutes. Not complete, displaced up to beat 3.|
|Reading. Louis Bellson “Modern Reading Text in 4/4” page 4. Played as comping patterns in swing.||30 minutes.|
|Rudiments. Paradiddle 16th notes displacing accents across bar. 80bpm.||30 minutes. Finished off bar|
|Playing. Funk improvisation while displacing paradiddle accents across bar.||30 minutes.|
The time you set in your routine should not be rigid; if you find yourself completely engaged in an exercise, it’s definitely a positive thing to spend more time with it. Likewise if you had hoped to do 30 minutes on one exercise but find you’re losing focus after 20 minutes, move on to something else or have a break. Remember that doing 30 minutes of optimal practice is far better for your development than doing an hour of unfocused practice.
Also notice that the example above features a long chunk on just playing. Improvising is an important skill for any form of popular music, and the best way to practice it is to just play. Bring together what you’ve been working on and, rather than methodically going through each permutation of an exercise, mix it up and experiment. After all, that’s what improvisation is—playing things that you can already play in a different way.
Killing Two Birds with One Stone
Every time I practice a given exercise, I try to practice as many skills as possible at the same time. For example, if I’m practicing the paradiddle example above, I’ll do so with a metronome. If I’m reading a page of quarter notes and eighth notes, I’ll make it into a coordination exercise, play an ostinato with three limbs, and read the page with my fourth limb. Add a metronome to that and I’d be practicing three core skills at once: reading, coordination, and time.
By using these tips your practice will undoubtedly have more focus, and your playing in turn will benefit. Next time we’re going to look at using a metronome. We’ll focus on how you can use a metronome as a tool not to keep you in time but to help you improve your own time. We’ll also think creatively about how you can use a metronome to replicate a live music situation.
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