I wanted to take some time and outline what truly effective practice looks like.
Many people are under the impression that if they just bang away at scales and pieces for hours on end, they will see improvement. This is not the case. In fact, you may see the opposite effect or nothing gained at all. Except that those mistakes and poor interpretations are being ingrained into your muscle memory. Practice makes permanent, while this may be contrary to the popular saying. “Practice makes perfect.” It is in fact the more accurate observation. The reason being that if you have poor practice habits or do not practice mindfully and intelligently you will gain very little but bad habits. Which is going to yield very poor results.
So what does effective practice look like?
Here are a few things to consider:
1) Instead of mindlessly blasting through scales, begin with your metronome set at a modest tempo. You should feel relaxed, with no tension in your body as you play. Slowly notch up the tempo as you work through the scales, perhaps play a few scales then notch up the metronome a few clicks. Maintain relaxation. If you begin to feel tension stop. Relax fully and begin again. As the speed builds you should not feel increased tension. This will only hinder you and make progress to true fluidity impossible. Do not try to build speed too quickly. If you use this method as you practice scales and everything else you will find performance is easy, relaxed and your confidence will be increased. You will be able to focus on more important part’s of the music such as interpretation and emotion etc.
2) Use a timer or set a specific time goal for each thing you need to work on or practice. By doing this you will increase your focus and prevent yourself from wasting countless hours which yield little. Focused practice time yields excellent results. Make a goal for scales (and pieces) such as increased clarity or tone quality, increased speed, or ease of execution. Then set a time limit like 15-30 minutes and begin. Apply this principle to all other aspects of your practice time. If you are working on a particular piece set a time limit and focus with presentness of mind and body on that piece.
3) Set a goal for each piece you are working on (this point can be directly linked to the previous one). Such as focusing on a single measure or phrase and then integrating it into the over all section. Or working on accuracy by slowing the piece down substantially. A goal could be making a piece sound more musical through the inclusion of dynamics and quality interpretation.
When playing through pieces or studies, do not simply strive to memorize them as quickly as possible through repetition and then move on. You should integrate them into not only your muscle memory, but your mind and inner ear as well. Some ways to do this include: Singing the melody while accompanying yourself (or just singing the melody). Working on bringing out the most important lines within the piece (sing these lines as well). Harmonic analysis as well as melodic analysis are useful tools on many counts, including interpretation and memorization.