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7 Creative Ways to Ditch Dull Practice Sessions

Updated: Feb 10, 2022

By Michael Compitello


Practicing is essential to everything we do as musicians. But often, our practice sessions are repetitive and dull, with too much focus on our muscles and too little attention paid to our ears and minds. Here are 7 ideas to enliven your practice with an eye towards creativity, proactivity, and active engagement with your musical development.

1. Take on Big Problems


Articulate larger issues in your playing that you’d like to address. Then, develop a practice routine that addresses those issues incrementally. While most of us are great at setting short term goals, taking on a Big Problem helps give each practice session a purpose as part of a larger goal, and allows you to see your progress more effectively. It also provides a neat shorthand for practice goals within each session.


Your theme could be tone production, timing, maintaining expressivity in high pressure situations, or keeping your hammers low. Deciding to focus your work around a larger issue helps jumpstart a feedback of deliberate practice. As you work to hear your sound in a more nuanced manner, you’ll get better at hearing your sound, which will improve over time the quality of your mental representation—your sense of how something should sound, look, or feel.


Over time, your themes will shift from fundamentals of tone production and timing to phrasing ideas and inflection and character and (fingers crossed) style.


2. Keep Track of Your Time


While my favorite musical memories when creativity takes over and I lose track of time, it’s important to be diligent in your practice to allow for creativity to take hold more regularly. I do this by journaling and using a timer.

Dear Diary


Journaling your practice helps you both keep track of what you’re doing and analyze what you have done to see what you should do in the future. It allows for reflection on your work, providing essential feedback on your progress. And, the process of writing down what you’ve done provides important multimodal learning, which reinforces retention.


What should your journal look like? It depends on the person. Some will track every minute of their practice, while others will paint in broad strokes. Some will write a paragraph about their struggles with a technical issue, and others will be as terse as Magic 8 Ball. Both work: the important thing is to do it.

Example of practice journaling and recording.



Timers


I use a modified version of Pomodoro Technique in my practice. Developed by Francesco Cirillo, the Pomodoro Technique is designed to facilitate planning, tracking, recording, processing and visualizing. Sounds pretty close to effective practice to me! I use the Pomodoro Technique at every level of my musical work, from planning to execution to journaling and reflection.


Here’s how it works:

  • Make a to-do list for your practice session. This could be as broad as “warm up, work on Psappha (highly recommended), do recital run-through” or as specific as “work on double strokes for use within snare drum etude, work on snapping fingers, try and memorize a section of text, work fluidity of line in F-L in Piece Y, review notes in Piece Z.”

  • Set an intention for a single chunk of time. Not sure how long a task will take? Worried your task is too big or small? Start with a single Pomodoro and adjust.

  • Set a timer for 25 minutes, and work on your task without deviating, trying your best to avoid distractions and being sucked into another task or any Slow TV. Remember, the timer is running!

  • After 25 minutes, take a short break (5-10 minutes), during which you can review the work you completed, think on upcoming tasks, or reflect more broadly.

  • Repeat!

  • After 4 blocks of 25 minutes, take a longer break, maybe eat an actual tomato.


Did you know: research shows classical music favors the growth of plants by around 25%!

I structure my practice routine around a few Pomodori of warming up, a few learning new material, and some focused on review and reflection. After a few sessions, I learn how long a task will take, allowing me to more effectively plot out my future practice sessions.



Here’s an example of how I structure my practice sessions. Each section could be 1-4 25-minute sessions of time.

Think of each Pomodoro as a mini-experiment—a deliberate practice loop—where you explore a specific problem and track your effort and results. The frequent breaks give you some time to journal your results, and provide a mental break between sessions of challenging work. Changing what you work on each 25 minutes also creates some “contextual interference,” the motor learning phenomenon where frequently changing the context of a motor skill rather than maximizing repetition can facilitate learning.


By minimizing distraction and foregrounding a single task, the technique has allowed me to increase the amount of time I spent in flow, that wondrous state eliding ease and accomplishment. (Be sure to have a notepad nearby, as many of us have great inspirations while in flow). At the same time, this technique has increased my focus, as each Pomodoro is in essence an exercise in concentration.


3. Turn Your Music into Exercises


Instead of repeating challenging passages over and over, I like to make a “most wanted list” in the repertoire I’m practicing: a collection of challenging passages which I dissect and turn into warm-ups and exercises in technical and musical development. Here’s my three-step process to turn challenging passages into exercises:

1. Make the passage much easier

Here, I take away some element of difficulty: if the passage is challenging to coordinate between the hands, play one hand at a time. If the passage is difficult because of a rhythmic issue, make the rhythm much easier but still recognizable. If you struggle to hear the correct pitches, flatten other parameters to make pitch the primary focus. If the passage includes a lot of rolls, practice block chords and then metered rolls. Over time, you’ll develop a toolkit of transformational techniques that you can deploy depending on your diagnosis.

2. Make the passage much more difficult

Here, I extend the difficulty of the passage with regard to some parameter. Might I play faster than is required of me? Might I work to play more softly than I need to in concert? Could I play this passage in a more challenging key, or with an additional coordination challenge? In each case, focusing on varying your playing is helpful, both strengthening your ability to quickly change your playing and adding to the feeling that you are actively creating rather than trying to hit a narrow target. By exploring many ways the piece could be, you are strengthening your ideas about how you think the piece should sound and look.

3. Return to the passage

Go back to the passage as written. At this point, your mental representation should be fairly specific and strong, as you will have heard many versions of the passage. Now, work to narrow the parameters of your target, focusing on precision and accuracy.


I like to do this process in my head, as I find it develops my ears and memory more effectively than with written notation. Here’s a video of me exploring these techniques in the first measure of Joseph Tompkin’s Nine French-American Rudimental Solos, vol. 1. In this video, I also touch upon use larger themes to frame individual practice sessions,



4. Turn Your Exercises into Music


Take an active hand in your technical studies to make them more musical, mentally engaging, and flexible. Focus on active change informed by critical listening rather than repetition. Not only does dynamically altering your exercises reduce the risk of injury, it also helps develop a broader interpretive palette.


Challenge yourself to try your exercises with a different musical character, in the style of your favorite performer, or in a way you haven’t explored yet. Taking on a proactive mindset—“let me try this” or “I want my audience to hear this character”—rather than a reactive, defensive attitude (“yikes, I missed that note” or “I hope I don’t overshoot that octave”) can reduce performance anxiety and minimize distraction by subsuming your technique within a larger, altruistic musical goal.


5. Practice Multi-Modally


By getting to know your repertoire from a different angle, you develop a more nuanced and durable representation, which reduces performance anxiety. If a passage is made up of vertical sonorities, try playing them as horizontal runs. Likewise, if a quick melodic passage is challenging, turn the passage into a collection of vertical sonorities. These practices provide a built-in analysis as you develop your own exercises.


At the same time, practicing multi-modally develops memory. Musicians tend to activate three types of memory in performance: visual, aural, and kinetic. Percussionists tend to rely on kinetic memory, leading to some nasty surprises if something sounds or looks different in a performance than a practice session.


If you think you know a piece, try testing your aural memory and singing it or playing it on a different instrument. Or, test your visual memory by ‘looking’ your way through a piece. Finally, short-circuit your kinetic memory by recreating your repertoire with one hand (if you can!). I like to make cheat sheets for repertoire I’m learning, and find that the process of writing out and shortening my part helps me link the visual, sonic, and kinetic.


Here’s a cheat sheet a made for a movement of Robert Honstein’s Down Down Baby, for two performers on a single cello.

Robert Honstein’s Down Down Baby Cheat Sheet


This is my part for the final movement, “Down Down Baby.”



And here’s a cheat sheet I made for Hannah Lash’s Start, for solo snare drum:




6. Record Yourself for Instant Feedback.

Many people have written about the value of self-recording in the practice room. I’ve written before about how I use recording in my practice. I like to spend 10 minutes on a passage: recording myself, listening critically, and making an effective and durable change. It works!


Why do I consider self-diagnosis a creative act? It combines active and objective listening with comparison against some notion of how something should be (a mental representation). It requires thoughtful and responsive ears, a deft touch with adjectives (try and come up with 5 specific words to describe your playing after hearing a recording), and the ability to determine a specific course of action based on what has just been heard. Sounds like creativity to me!



7. Be Curious.


Finally, I recommend adopting a life-long learner’s mindset in the practice room. Explore new options at every turn: new mallets, different instruments, new approaches to familiar material. Research something you don’t know. Listen to many interpretations, and model some of them in your own playing. Read a book about something other than music. Think about how food can be similar to music, or how the construction of an inspiring building or public park might collude with musical architecture. Curiosity as a practice can lead to strong musical inspiration, and inspired performances are why we play music.


I love to cook, read, travel, and engage with visual art.


I hope these techniques help you, and inspire some new creative endeavors. I’d love to hear what has been working for you, and I invite you to become a part of my life-long learner community!


 

Written by Michael Compitello 7/28/2021 Edited by Joshua Vonderheide


To learn more about Michael, you can visit his artist page and website!










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2 Comments


Absolutely, Michael's insights are invaluable, and I appreciate the openness in sharing methods. The concept of multi-modal practice is indeed powerful, fostering creativity and a holistic approach to learning. It's true, overcoming self-consciousness can be a challenge, but creating a supportive and encouraging practice environment is key.

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Stephen Kehner
Stephen Kehner
Aug 08, 2021

Lots to learn here ... thanks for sharing your methods, and welcome to the team Michael! I especially dig the idea of multi-modal practice, it can be super effective but I find many students are too shy or self-conscious to really be creative with that concept in the practice room.

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