Professional musicians and music students aspiring to be professional musicians know the importance of healthy practice habits in helping to avoid performance related injuries. Most adult students do not aspire to such goals and don’t practice for excessively long periods of time but still might benefit from some of these helpful tips to help us to relax and get the most out of the time we do spend with our instruments.
If you have ever felt achy and/or tired after practicing for a short time, or too tense to effectively perform a new skill, or if you find it very difficult to play very fast passages, etc. then this information might be very helpful. You might not think of playing an instrument as a physically demanding pursuit but it is. The risk of most adult students falling victim to performance related injury is very low but the benefits of healthy practice habits should not be overlooked.
Start by warming up. A couple of minutes of aerobic activity and stretching are very effective. Next empty your mind of distractions and move your thoughts toward playing music.Begin playing a slow and simple passage rather than jumping into the more difficult techniques. Focus on how you are sitting and how the muscles in your hands feel. Practice a variety of skills in your first few minutes and be mindful of how you feel as you proceed.
Practice a variety of repertoire and techniques. This helps to avoid taxing any one group of muscles. Drilling difficult passages is fine but do it for a predetermined length of time. Stop at the end of that time and continue at the next session. Endless repetition can become mindless and ineffective , reinforcing bad habits. You might try dividing up physical tasks, working on one at a time. For instance one hand on the piano, or just focusing on your bow arm or your embouchure. Practice small sections of your music so that you can enjoy some immediate success. Celebrating little victories can help build confidence, momentum and enjoyment.
Short breaks can be helpful. If you are lucky enough to have a full hour to practice consider taking a 5 minute break in the middle of your session. Get a drink of water or stand up, move around a bit, or just stretch. Do whatever it takes to keep your body and mind fresh. Avoid longer breaks that might require you to warm up again.
We can’t overemphasize the importance of consistent practice. A consistent 30 minutes or an hour a day is more productive and safer for your body than skipping days and then launching into marathon sessions. Quality is better than quantity, and it’s easier to have quality practice time in shorter spurts than trying to force your body and mind to cooperate for a longer periods of time.
Gradually increase your playing time. Start slowly and gradually and incrementally increase the time you spend playing your instrument. You need to build endurance.
Stop if you feel pain or tension. Never play through pain. If your muscles are tense it might be the perfect time for a short break or to go back to your warm up routine before continuing.
Practice mindfully. Start a mindful session by identifying goals and developing a practice plan. Pay attention to your posture throughout and notice when you need breaks. Take time to practice away from your instrument and to develop your knowledge of the music. Practice deliberately and think through everything that you do.
Cool down at the end of your practice session. Spend the last few minutes of your time practicing, returning to slow and simple passages allowing your muscles to relax and to recover faster. Playing something that you already know and enjoy helps confirm the effectiveness of what you are doing to reach your goals. Playing music is truly a life long pursuit and finding ways to enjoy the process and the journey are as important as the end result. Finally, walk away from your instrument and stretch to minimize lactic acid buildup in your muscles at the end of the session.
If you would like more depth and insight into this subject there are many books that we can recommend. These two are both very good.
The Art of Practicing – Madeline Bruser
The Inner Game of Music – Barry Green