To practice effectively, you need to be able to do two main things: prioritize, and know when you’ve lost focus. A lot of performance majors feel overwhelmed at the sheer amount of music they need to learn, but that doesn’t need to be the case. If you practice efficiently, you’ll find it much easier to learn all of your music quickly.
Don’t dive into the music and try to play the entire piece right away. I know how tempting it is to just sit down and go through new music in one fell swoop. However, that’s not a good way to practice. If you really want to, you can do this once or twice, but for actual practicing it’s a lot better to break down the piece into chunks and work on them individually. Vocalists, this means learning the text and music separately. Instrumentalists, it means chunking your music instead of trying to get the entire piece down at once.
Listen to recordings as a reference, not as a means of learning your piece. Yes, listen to a piece a couple times before you start to play, so you have an idea of the performance practice. Then STOP listening to recordings, and just learn the piece. You’re looking to creating your own performance, not copy someone else’s. And vocalists, you really, really should not learn classical rep by ear. Don’t do it.
Start each practice sessions with one or two short, clearly defined goals. If you show up in a practice room with no idea what you want to do, then you’re going to noodle around for a long time and not get much done. If you instead show up saying “I’m going to work on getting this section up to tempo” or “I’m going to fix that trill,” then you know what you need to do, and will get a lot more done in less time.
When you start to feel distracted or tired, be done for a while. Once I start checking my phone for the time every two minutes, it’s time for me to go do something else. That’s a sign that my brain is Done for the moment. Once you lose concentration, it’s better to take a break, do something else for a bit, then come back. Otherwise you just get more fatigued and your practice gets less effective.
Remember researching and learning about a piece counts as practice too. Translate directions and stuff in your score. Research the composer. Look up similar pieces, or other pieces composed around the same time. Do some analysis of the piece, so you know how the harmonic stuff works. All of this is practice – it helps you perform the piece better, after all.
Several short, efficient practice sessions are usually more productive that one long session. This ties into what I said about being done when you’re distracted. Several half-hour practice sessions a day is most efficient for me, it seems. That’s about when my attention span times out. When that happens, I leave the practice room and do homework, or translations, or IPA, or just futz around on my phone. All of which are valid ways to help yourself (futzing on your phone is a reward and a brain-refresh!). Figure out what works for you, and you’ll notice much better results from your practice time.
Practicing really shouldn’t be a heavy burden. It should be time spent with an instrument you like, performing music you enjoy (and scales you tolerate). Practicing efficiently allows you to get a lot more done, and prevents the fatigue that leads to burnout and instrument hate. Be kind to yourself – practice efficiently.