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Efficient 20 Minute Practice

20 minute practiceHow often do you hear people claim that it’s not how much your practice but how efficiently you practice? There are always claims that practicing 15-30 minutes every day versus a 3 hour session every Saturday will have a more positive impact on your playing ability – but how do you make the most of those 15-30 minutes? In this lesson we’re going to focus on planning efficient practice so you can always make the most out of limited time.

The most important step to efficient practice is planning. This doesn’t mean that you need to have a written agenda for practice every day, but you should be thinking about what you need to practice well before you pick up your instrument. This way you don’t waste precious practice minutes deciding what to do. So how do you plan? I take a multi-step approach to planning my practice which considers different things I know I need to work on. If I’m trying to learn new material for the orchestra and know my time will be limited I’ll try to plan out my practice day by day each week to focus on some core competencies as well as the new material. I generally divide my practice into three key sections: warming up, practicing what I’ve learned, and learning new things. I’ll outline my thought process here and you can apply it to your daily practice routine. We’ll assume you have 20 minutes to practice.

The first step is the warm-up. My left hand is stronger than my right because I came to the upright bass after playing bass guitar for many years, so my warm up focuses more on my bowing technique. If I spend 5 minutes doing a solid warm up it will consist of doing some pre-thought bowing drills (I use A Comtemporary Concept of Bowing Techniques for the Double Bass and the classic Simandl books for exercises. About 50 percent of my warm-up is just bowing drills, and then I do scales. Normally I’ll do a variation of a two octave scale. I’m solid at straight scale patterns, so I’ll do a pattern within the scale (such as ascending thirds or playing through the different modes). The important thing is that you identify something that is feasible for you to do as a warm-up that still focuses on your weaknesses. My bowing dexterity is weaker than my left hand dexterity, so my warm-up uses a lot of bow-focused drills. I still warm up my left hand with scales though. This is meant to get your hands ready for the rest of your practice. If you have problems with rhythm or time, do your warm-up with a metronome – you may as well accomplish two things at once!

Now that the warm-up is out of the way we need to plan phase two: practicing what we’ve already learned. The most important step of planning this phase should be obvious: identify what you are bad at. If you can already play it, there’s no need to practice it if you have limited time. This is your opportunity to grow from your last practice session. Let’s say I’ve already learned a small passage to a larger piece and need to work on it more. If I can already play it normally I’ll try playing it with a different fingering, or with a totally different rhythm. Essentially I’ll make the notes of the passage into a drill by themselves. I will still play the passage normally, but will continually strive for increased speed or consistency when I play. I keep a log of my metronome settings for different pieces I’m working on, so each day I can increase them bit by bit. If I know yesterday I played it at 80bpm, my goal for today is 92 and so on. This practice section may take another 5 minutes – and it should be 5 solid minutes of very concentrated practice.

The last 10 minutes of a 20 minute session would be devoted to learning new material. Everyone has different methods for learning new material, so there is no right or wrong way to go about it if it is efficient for you. Depending on the difficulty or length of the piece I may scan through the entire part and only work on the sections that appear the most challenging. I’m fairly good at whole-notes, so I’ll save those for a day when I have more time ;) I’m looking for that sixteenth note run over two octaves that I can’t sight read well. Once I’ve identified a few difficult passages to work on I’ll start working out a fingering strategy. As I mentioned earlier, my left hand dexterity is stronger than my right hand bowing so I’ll play through the passage totally pizzicato to work out a quick efficient fingering. I start with this because it is faster for me to do, and once I have a good fingering idea set I can focus on my right hand and really shaping the notes with the bow. I may revise my fingering later, but with limited time I need to get through as much of the piece as quickly as possible. Next I start playing through the passage as it’s written as fast as I can with the correct rhythm and intonation. If that’s 40 bpm so be it. Speed will ultimately come from accuracy, so it’s critical to pay close attention to the passages notation as well as bow placement, direction and weight for inflection. Remember: perfect practice makes perfect. I’ll get through as much as I can and then pack it up for the day. There you have it – a very efficient 20 minutes!

A few things to note about practicing this way:

1. Take notes. Keep a practice journal, or write on your music. Either way, keep a record of what you’ve done and where you left off. It will keep you honest about what you really need to be working on and should force you to push yourself. This is exactly what practice should do – push you further than you were the day before.

2. Noodling = Death. In other words, FOCUS. The time is only as good as you make it, and it should be set up as a challenge. Practice should always be ambitious (yet feasible) and difficult – your goal is to dominate it. There is always something to be said for freely playing and creating new melodies and ideas, if you want to devote 10 minutes of your practice to that it is fine, do not let it bleed in to your other focused sections. Likewise it should go without saying that you need to be with as little distraction as possible – no TV in the background, put away your cell phone, get away from other people and get to work.

I would take a night and plan out the week for practice (understanding that you will have to revise as you go). This way when you make a 20 minute block of time you know exactly what you need to do. An example might be the following for two days – then Tuesday night I’d write out the next two days:

Efficient 20 Minute Practice schedule

I’m coming at this from a classical music perspective – you can substitute in whatever you are working on – bop scales, jazz standards, funk covers, or just improving your chops for upright or bass guitar. The main principles are that 1) You must have a plan and 2) Practice must be challenging. When you have more time sit down for 30 minutes or an hour (or more!) and get as much done as you want. You’re always going to find the time to noodle around so don’t think playing music won’t be fun anymore. Improvement requires a concentrated effort and this will help you find your voice on the bass.

Photo by Vangelis Thomaidis