28 Days of Practice: Week 3: Seven Common Practice Habits that Create Problems in Your Playing

November 8, 2013, 5:40 PM · This week, we're digging deep. In addition to practicing every day and tracking your practice on the chart, you're also going to take a good look at HOW you practice. I've listed here seven common practice habits that create problems in your playing. Read through them and see if any of them seem to describe you!

1. I am easily distracted when I practice. My mind is always thinking about other things, and I frequently check my phone and/or computer while I am practicing. I often put the violin down to talk to my family, watch tv, or respond to a text message.

2. I play through all my pieces once and am done. I rarely practice small sections of my pieces and don’t repeat them very much. I like to get the big picture, but I don’t worry about the details.

3. I become obsessed with small details. I spend the bulk of my practice time trying to get one or two notes in tune in a scale or playing the same section over and over because it’s not exactly right. I find it hard to move on to more material unless I am satisfied that something is perfect.

4. I only practice my pieces and rarely think about my form. I am unaware of how I am standing or holding my instrument and bow. All my focus is on learning the notes to the piece.

5. I am not sure what I actually sound like. I never record myself or listen to the sound coming back to me, but I focus on what I hear under my ear. I am frequently surprised when I hear feedback from my teacher, because they comment on things I wasn’t aware of.

6. I feel like my practicing lacks structure and direction. I practice whatever I feel like practicing on a given day. I don’t feel like I’m getting better, necessarily. I don’ t always remember to check my assignments that my teacher gives me, and sometimes I realize that there are things I have forgotten.

7. I am overwhelmed with the amount of music I have to learn, and I always have to leave something out when I practice. I feel like I have to choose between learning notes to new pieces or working on my scales and technical exercises. I feel like I’m just trying to keep up.

Respond to the following reflection questions:

1. Did any of the statements above seem to describe you? Which ones?

2. Which statement describes your practice the most accurately? If any part of it doesn’t seem right, write a description here that feels more true to you. Pick ONE habit to focus on.

3. What are some things that you could do to change this habit and make your practice more rewarding?

Below are some suggestions for changing each habit. See if any of them are the same as the ones you brainstormed above, and use them to help formulate a plan.

1. I am easily distracted when I practice.

-Turn off your phone, computer, and anything else that could interrupt you.
-Ask your family members not to disturb you while you’re practicing.
-Use a program to block certain websites on the internet that you know you waste time on (Facebook, Netflix, Twitter, etc).
-Keep a notepad in your practice area. Each time you have a thought about something, make a note of it and when you’ll take care of it. Example: Study for history test at 8 pm. This will help you remember what you need to and then move on.

2. I play through all my pieces once and am done.

-Pick three spots in your music that are tricky for you. Play each of them slowly, and aim for the goal of playing a spot three times in a row with equal quality before you move on to the next.
-Play through your piece after you’ve worked on your spots and observe whether or not those spots seem easier during the playthrough.
-List one or two things that you are trying to improve in your playing (i.e. hold your violin up, curve your bow thumb, have a beautiful sound on every note).
-Practice only one musical phrase at a time. After you play the phrase, ask yourself if you achieved your goal. If the answer is yes, then repeat the phrase three times in a row. If the answer is no, see if you can pinpoint where in the phrase your scroll started to droop or your sound got scratchy. Repeat until you are satisfied with the phrase.

3. I become obsessed with small details.

-Try using the technique of selective attention. Instead of waiting for everything to be perfect before you move on, pick one thing to focus on and improve. For example, if you’re working on your rhythm, don’t let yourself stop because you miss a note or your bow squeaks. Only focus on your rhythm. Once the rhythm’s fixed, then you can work on your intonation or tone.
-Play through your piece every other day, and use the playthrough to notice which parts of the piece need particular attention.
-Look for patterns to fix. For example, if one note is consistently out of tune, work to find that note in tune, and then play it in tune every time it appears in the piece. Fixing patterns that show up throughout the piece rather than fixating on one particular passage can help everything get better faster.

4. I only practice my pieces and rarely think about my form.

-Focusing on your basic setup is so crucial for violin playing. Ask your teacher what improvements they think you need to make.
-Use the first five minutes of your practice time to feel balanced with the violin, balance your bow hold, and to do any exercises that your teacher has assigned you to develop skills like shifting, vibrato, or special bow strokes.
-Pick a section of one of your pieces and play it with the goal of having a tall violin and a curvy bow thumb, or whatever it is that you are working on improving.

5. I am not sure what I actually sound like.

-Use your phone (on airplane mode!) or another device to record yourself playing something.
-Write down notes in a practice journal, and use those notes to guide your planning for your next practice session.
-Put an ear plug in your left ear and listen with your right ear to the sound.
-Always ask yourself, "Am I making the best sound I possibly can?"

6. I feel like my practicing lacks structure and direction.

-Make it a point to look over your teacher’s notes from your last lesson at the beginning of your practice session each day.
-Systematically work through them – make a checklist if that helps you.
-Give yourself five to ten minutes at the end of your practice session to play anything you want.

7. I am overwhelmed with the amount of music I have to learn, and I always have to leave something out when I practice.

-Make a list of everything you need to practice this week. Divide it in half, and alternate days. This way, everything gets an equal amount of practice time and you’re not trying to fit everything into one day.

Don't forget to check out the original posting on my website or to follow my practice journey on Twitter.


November 9, 2013 at 03:44 PM · Hi Claire;

For me, numbers 3 and 7 rang true. I liked this article because you have written possible solutions for each 'problem' area. Number 7 will be easier to integrate into the practice routine over the length of a week. All I really have to do is divide what I want to practice in half and practice each half on alternate days. Number 3 will be harder. I will have to continually remind myself to focus on one technique that needs refinement at a time. Temporally ignoring areas that needs improvement while working on only one will be harder. Good article.


November 11, 2013 at 08:47 PM · This is a great list with some really helpful pointers! I identify with many of these problems and I'm going to try focusing on one each week using your suggestions. Thanks!

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