Habits are one of the most powerful ways we have to change our circumstances. By developing small, positive habits and repeating them over a long period of time, massive changes can result.
James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, puts it even clearer:
Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.
I find that this same kind of strategy, applied to music practice, works wonders for students.
I’ve discussed MicroPractice before. I use it with younger students (6th-9th grade), although it can also be effective with some older students who haven’t established good practice habits.
The basic idea is that I give students a very small number of exercises (1 or 2), and a very low time limit (2-5 minutes). The student is expected to do at least one MicroPractice session 5 days (or more) per week. Generally, I encourage them to do these practice sessions as soon after school as possible, before other homework.
It’s okay for a student to keep practicing after their time is up, or to practice other music aside from my assignments. However, I make it clear that we’ll be going over the assigned exercises in lessons before anything else.
You can read more about MicroPractice here.
Fundamentals > Music
I use a similar strategy with more advanced students.
I start most lessons with warmup/technique exercises. Not only does this help make sure that the student learns what a good warm-up looks (and feels) like, but it also lets me hear them perform basic exercises without the challenges of music.
These technique exercises vary depending upon the student, but they are often a mix of long tones, buzzing exercises, harmonic/slur exercises, and scales/arpeggios.
Many times students will skip warm-up exercises and jump straight into music – thinking that if they have limited time it’s better to practice the music than exercises.
(This may be related to the phenomenon of “teaching to standardized tests” present in so many other subjects).
Of course, this isn’t true. It’s much better to have a strong understanding of fundamental skills – since those can be applied to any music.
What I end up doing with these students is showing them how the technique exercises directly relate to the music. We find scales and arpeggios, we discuss breathing plans, we look at different kinds of slurs, etc.
After going over all these things, we’ll usually try the section of their music again, and it will almost always be better.
Then I’ll tell them that if they only have 5-15 minutes to practice, they should only do technique exercises since these pay off far more over the long run than practicing 3 measures from a random band piece. Then, we can talk about their schedule for the coming week and figure out when they can put these 15-minute practice sessions into their calendar (like MicroPractice, I encourage them to be done earlier in the afternoon).
During their next lesson, we’ll talk about how their practice sessions went – how many were short, “fundamentals only”, and how many were able to include additional music.
Why These Work
I don’t think there’s much doubt as to why these techniques seem to work for most students, but I think pointing these things out can help you develop your own strategies for yourself or your own students.
- Having a set time to do the practice and to end the practice makes it much easier to fit into a student’s day. I encourage using a timer to make sure they don’t exceed their “assigned” time (but if they do go over, it’s okay).
- Doing it first thing when they get home gives the student a consistent habit trigger. If possible, I encourage them to have a practice area, with a music stand already set up.
- Having a limited time makes it easy to do this consistently. This helps develop the habit of practicing regularly (4-7 days per week) from the beginning.
- Since the exercises I give are (relatively) easy, the practice sessions don’t take huge amounts of mental or physical energy.
- Because the student is getting lots of repetitions of essential techniques, they are improving rapidly, which means that more difficult music also doesn’t feel overwhelming or impossible.
- The rewards from this kind of practice are both tangible (the student gets better) and intangible (the student starts to develop the identity as “a musician who practices”).
There are lots of good books on forming better habits. I have several recommendations on my Books and Music page.
However, the idea for this blog post mostly comes from Atomic Habits by James Clear. I highly recommend this book if you’re interested in how you can tweak your habits to improve almost any aspect of your life.