Good Practice Habit #1: Focus

We’ve all heard the term “getting in the zone”, and we all have a different idea of what that means, but we know it refers to being in a state of mind that allows us to accomplish a task at hand. I’ll call it “focus”. Focus is a quiet state of mind; it isn’t desperate trying, or forcing, or endless repetition. It’s merely being totally present, without interference from other thoughts or any nagging ideas that you should be doing something else. In a larger sense, focus is also accepting where you’re at musically, and working within that realistic frame. (If you constantly try to play above your skill level, you can’t make the progress you’ll make if you work within your skill level, thereby letting your skill level progress naturally.) 

Focus keeps all the little distractions, imaginary judges, and the gremlins I call “Shoulds” from having any negative influence. And being calmly focused brings better results than all the forcing and agonizing in the world.

If you have trouble relaxing enough to focus, learn a sport that requires “getting in the zone”, or if you go to a gym, close your eyes when you’re on the treadmill instead of directing your attention outward to a TV or book. Or take a meditation class. You’ll be amazed at what a difference these can make in learning how to focus when you’re practicing music.

Good Habit #2: Relax

In addition to focusing – which relaxes the mind –  musicians also need to relax the body, arms and hands. Playing a musical instrument does not involve strength or force; it’s not a wrestling match. If your body or your technique is tense, you’ll never be able to play smoothly, rhythmically, or equally well at any tempo.

A tense technique is often the culprit in unsuccessful musicianship; putting too much effort into movement causes loss of dexterity. Some people have tense technique because they’ve been taught poorly; others because they subconsciously assume that playing requires great effort and tension. (Don’t be fooled by performing instrumentalists who try to make it look like it’s a grueling physical workout. That’s just showmanship.) On the other hand, relaxing doesn’t mean the hands and arms should be floppy or their position or movements devoid of technique; it means that one relaxes within the position and movements that are essential to your technique. 

When learning a new technique on any instrument, tension needs to be addressed as the hands and body become accustomed to the movements. If tension remains and becomes habitual, it can be challenging to overcome it later. I recall a harp student who always approached her harp by drawing in and holding her breath and assuming a posture and expression reminiscent of a fierce eagle staring at its prey from above. It turned out the first harpist she’d ever seen (on TV years before) had approached her harp that way. It had given her the subconscious impression that it was necessary, when in fact it was merely an affectation and her copying it prevented her from being able to play. 

Upon seeing a skilled professional musician play, we often say, “They make it look so easy!” Those who make it look easy are those with a relaxed technique. If you don’t know whether your body and/or hands are tense or not, ask a professional musician (who knows your instrument) to observe you. (If you’d like a session on Skype, please contact me at

Good Habit #3: Retaining Your Passion

If you’re playing an instrument, hopefully you’re doing it because you have a passion for music. That may seem like an overly obvious statement, but it’s really at the heart of why we practice at all. If you love it, you can’t stay away from your instrument. If you don’t love it, you probably won’t want to practice. Unfortunately, many musicians, somewhere along the line, forget they’re playing for the love of music, and fall into making it a required drudgery. There can be a number of reasons for this lapse of passion.

  1. Are you playing the right instrument? If you have trouble “disciplining yourself” to practice, maybe you should ask yourself if you’re in love with your instrument or not. Some folks assume that if their current instrument isn’t thrilling them, no instrument will. Not so! Keep looking!
  2. Many of us who want to be practicing our instruments are doing everything else first and practicing last, as though it were a reward for being good. But if instead you practice when you want to, the other stuff will get done; playing music first will energize you for it.
  3. There are all kinds of subconscious issues around music playing. For instance, a friend of mine who wanted to learn his beloved new instrument wasn’t allowing himself to practice. After some thought, he realized he was repeating a learned childhood pattern  –  as a young boy he had asked his parents for music lessons and was told that in order to practice he would have to forego playing outdoors with his friends after school every day. As an adult he still subconsciously assumed he would have to give up something in order to play music. Recognizing such things can help us get past the problem of practice-reluctance.

Good Habit #4: Playing Music You Enjoy

Not only do you need to be playing an instrument you really enjoy, but each tune or song you learn should be one you like. If music is for enjoyment, why play tunes you don’t like? If you aren’t really moved by the music you’re playing, it’s sure to discourage you from practicing.

One of the reasons some folks don’t take lessons is because they’re afraid they’ll be required to learn music they don’t relate to. I have to agree that some beginner books make me feel stupid. “Froggy Went A-Courtin’” was insulting when we were toddlers, let alone as adult students. I’ve never understood why so many publishers of beginner books think simple tunes have to be inane. On the other hand, many a new student arrives at their first lesson armed with books of advanced music, or asking to play advanced tunes by ear, that are impossible for a beginner to learn. If you’re a beginner you can have a conversation with your teacher about learning tunes that are meant for intelligent brains but suitable for beginners.

If, after much practice, you get tired of playing a piece you used to enjoy, play it less often for a while. It will probably freshen up on the shelf in time.

Good Habit #5: Using Time Efficiently

How long you practice in a day doesn’t matter. I’ve met some students who wouldn’t practice when they had just a few free minutes – ten or fifteen minutes – because “it wasn’t long enough.” Not true! Three fifteen-minute practice periods are as good as one forty-five-minute session. Three ten-minute sessions are as good as one half-hour session. The brain needs the breaks between practices to “file” the information into memory anyway; if you practice without breaks, you can’t learn as much as if you practice in shorter sessions that add up to the same number of hours. It’s just a neurologic fact.

Be aware that skill on one instrument doesn’t translate to skill on another, nor does the ability to read music automatically mean you can play any instrument, even the ones that are closely related to your original instrument. Guitarists, for instance, cannot automatically play banjos; pianists cannot automatically play harps, pennywhistle players cannot automatically play flutes, and so on. If you get a new instrument, get guided instruction on the technique for that specific instrument.

…More Good Practice Habits next week!