Plan Your Work; Work Your Plan – A 3-Step Plan

(Note: this post is based on material originally published at Bennett’s Tenets.)

1) Plan your work.

Plan when you are going to practice. Don’t expect practicing to “just happen!” Look at your planner for the week, and make “practice appointments” with yourself. (Btw, you should have a planner/calendar of some kind – paper or electronic.)

Plan what to practice. Prioritize your practice based on what needs the most attention, or what needs to be learned the soonest (for an upcoming rehearsal, performance, or lesson). Don’t just sit down and start making noise. Your time is extremely valuable; use it wisely! Don’t waste all your time playing the stuff you already do well.

“If you always sound good in the practice room, you aren’t practicing the right things.”

2) Work your plan.

Once you’ve looked at your planner and made those practice appointments, KEEP them! Stick to your plan, unless there is a legitimate reason to change it. (An invitation to join some friends on a Starbucks run is not a legitimate reason.)

3) Make sure some things are more important than work.

Faith, family. The best musicians I know lead full and balanced lives. They do lots of interesting things besides practice. Of course, to be successful as a musician, you must make your practice time a very high priority. Nevertheless, sometimes life gets in the way. And sometimes, the best thing for your playing is to rest. (Practicing Too Much is Dangerous by Roger Bobo) Be flexible when you have to.

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Creep Forward, Leap Backward

In a previous post, I said my best practice advice is “When you mess up, slow down. Every time.” As Michael Höltzel put it in his book:

“Slow practice = fast learning”

But, there’s a right way and a wrong way to apply the Tortoise Principle:



It’s so important that you play something right many, many more times than you play it wrong as you’re preparing for a performance or audition. As you can see, when you “creep forward, leap backward” you minimize the mistakes.



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My Best Practice Advice

(Note: this post is based on material originally published at Bennett’s Tenets.)

When you make a mistake, slow down. Every time.

I call it The Tortoise Principle. You know: “slow and steady wins the race.”

     So, applying this practice technique goes like this: you set your sights on that tricky measure in your solo (or maybe an awesome Kopprasch etude!). You play it through, and it’s kinda messy. What do you do?  Slow it down. When you play it again, it’s better than it was, but you still miss a couple notes. What do you do? Slow it down again. The next time through, all the notes are there, but you realize you weren’t really playing the dynamics, or the proper articulations, or whatever. Slow it down again. Finally, you play it perfectly. NOW, you have torn it down to its foundation, and you can begin to build it up correctly. You can speed up the metronome gradually, and keep racking up correct repetitions. If you make a mistake, slow it down again. Even if you know it was just a fluke.

This might seem tedious, and it might feel like a waste of time. But, if most of us would apply this technique diligently, we’d play many fewer mistakes than we normally do in every practice session. I know you’ve heard a million times that you should practice slowly. But I’m convinced that most of us don’t use this tactic as effectively as we could. We don’t trust it. It requires patience and perseverance. Don’t rush the process. Where we really waste time is when we have to overcome the bad habits that have been reinforced through poor practice. By applying The Tortoise Principle, you’re actually saving countless hours of frustration.

I often talk to my students about keeping score mentally while they practice, between “right” and “wrong” repetitions of a passage. After all, every time you play it with mistakes, you’re practicing (i.e. reinforcing) the wrong version. The Tortoise Principle ensures that you will have many more correct repetitions than incorrect ones.


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