Practice Better (Vol. 5) : Focus On One Specific Thing

This is the fifth post in my short series of articles on how to PRACTICE BETTER.  I will be going through the 7 Big Ideas from Tom Heany's book First, Learn To Practice, and sharing my thoughts.  I highly recommend everyone pick up a copy of this book.  As of right now, Kindle download versions of the book are just under $5.  It's a quick read and has great wisdom within its pages on how to approach and design your practice routines to get the most out of them.  Without further ado, I give you Heany's fifth big idea:


"You affect everything by concentrating on one thing"
Having a specific focus (or a group of tasks to focus on) for each practice session is vital to your progress as a musician.  If you sit down and just say, "I'm going to play a song," you're not focusing your efforts on something specific.  Ask yourself what you're focusing on in the song and set your mind on that one thing.  Are you concentrating on playing a difficult passage fluently?  Are you concentrating on playing with good form by fretting the notes accurately with the tip of your finger?  Are you concentrating on playing cleanly without extraneous finger noise?  Or maybe you're focusing on tempo and timing?  It's important to define what your mind will focus on during each exercise so that you can effectively progress and grow your skill and fluency on your instrument.  
A wonderful side-effect of focusing intently on one specific aspect of your playing is that your playing will improve in all other areas as well.  Focusing on playing with good form will positively effect your tone.  Playing with good tone will positively effect your dynamics.  Playing with good dynamics will positively effect the emotional impact of your performances.  All aspects of your playing are connected through movement, and by focusing wholly on one specific area of movement at a time, you improve all of your movements.
If you want to make sure you're concentrating on one specific thing, here's a good approach to your practice session:
  • Decide what passage of music you will work on
  • Study the passage so that you understand it on a fundamental level.
  • Choose the focus of your concentration for the practice session.  Some examples of focus points might be:
    • Tempo (play with a metronome)
    • Timing
    • Volume and dynamics
    • Comfortable finger placement
    • Synchronization of right hand and left hand
    • Breathing (particularly if you're a singer)
  • Decide on a set amount of time to practice this one point of concentration.  Usually, the best return is somewhere between 15-20 minutes.  Any shorter and you won't have the necessary amount of repetitions to cement the practice.  Any longer, and, while you'll still be making improvements, they won't be happening as quickly.  If you want to have a really long focused practice session, it's best to have several 15-20 minute sections of focus that you can switch between.  This will help you learn quickly and prevent burnout.
  • Practice!

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