How to Accelerate Skill Development: Here are the five principles I would want to share with a younger version of myself. I hope you find something of value on this list as well.
1. Focus is everything: Keep practice sessions limited to a duration that allows you to stay focused. This may be as short as 10-20 minutes, and as long as 45-60+ minutes.
2. Timing is everything, too: Keep track of times during the day when you tend to have the most energy. This may be first thing in the morning, or right before lunch. Try to do your practicing during these naturally productive periods, when you are able to focus and think most clearly. What to do in your naturally unproductive times? I say take a guilt-free nap.
3. Don’t trust your memory: Use a practice notebook. Plan out your practice, and keep track of your practice goals and what you discover during your practice sessions. The key to getting into “flow” when practicing is to constantly strive for clarity of intention. Have a crystal clear idea of what you want (e.g. the sound you want to produce, or particular phrasing you’d like to try, or specific articulation, intonation, etc. that you’d like to be able to execute consistently), and be relentless in your search for ever better solutions.
When you stumble onto a new insight or discover a solution to a problem, write it down! As you practice more mindfully, you’ll began making so many micro-discoveries that you will need written reminders to remember them all.
4. Smarter, not harder: When things aren’t working, sometimes we simply have to practice more. And then there are times when it means we have to go in a different direction.
I remember struggling with the left-hand pizzicato variation in Paganini’s 24th Caprice when I was studying at Juilliard. I kept trying harder and harder to make the notes speak, but all I got was sore fingers, a couple of which actually started to bleed (well, just a tiny bit).
Instead of stubbornly persisting with a strategy that clearly wasn’t working, I forced myself to stop. I brainstormed solutions to the problem for a day or two, and wrote down ideas as they occurred to me. When I had a list of some promising solutions, I started experimenting.
I eventually came up with a solution that worked, and the next time I played for my teacher, he actually asked me to show him how I made the notes speak so clearly!
5. Stay on target with a problem-solving model: It’s extraordinarily easy to drift into mindless practice mode. Keep yourself on task using the 6-step problem solving model below.
- Define the problem. (What result did I just get? What do I want this note/phrase to sound like instead?)
- Analyze the problem. (What is causing it to sound like this?)
- Identify potential solutions. (What can I tweak to make it sound more like I want?)
- Test the potential solutions and select the most effective one. (What tweaks seem to work best?)
- Implement the best solution. (Reinforce these tweaks to make the changes permanent.)
- Monitor implementation. (Do these changes continue to produce the results I’m looking for?
Make Your Time Count
Life is short. Time is our most valuable commodity. If you’re going to practice, you might as well do it right.
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