Updated: Jun 23
Create a comfortable space. This seems too obvious for words, but not only will you be far less likely to succumb to all sorts of distractions, by entering a special practice area, whether it's a certain room or just a corner of the living room, will help prepare you mentally for this very particular kind of work. Mindful intention is everything, and having the ritual of going to the same place every time can help set that intention.
Warm-Up. I really love little exercises, even stretching or breathing exercises to help your body and mind prepare for the practice session. Simple, right? But those little things are easy to forget and can make a huge difference. You could start with scales as a warm-up, to loosen up your muscles and get your brain thinking about technique.
Have a goal for each practice session before you start practicing. There are literally hundreds or thousands of things you must do, correct, and improve to master a piece of music. But you can't do it all in one day. Choose only a few goals that you can actually accomplish in your allotted practice time. If you have only thirty minutes, one or two goals might be enough. If you have two hours, you can choose more. But be specific and realistic.
Don't just play passages over and over. Decide on a particular thing you want to do that day and do it. Don't meander. Don't practice things you can already do. Focus on achieving specific improvements in the song for that day.
Identify and overcome problems. Having trouble with two very tricky measures? Set your timer for a short period (like five or 10 minutes), and then work just on one problem in as many ways as you can — break it down into even smaller and more manageable bits, go super slow, change the rhythm, whatever. If that trouble spot is still giving you agita, then make yourself a mental note to come back to that section again tomorrow. Chances are it will be much, much easier the next time around. Don't always start at the beginning every time. Remember about maximizing your time and your willpower? It can feel really good to hear yourself playing the beginning of a piece beautifully, but you may wind up wasting the limited time and energy you have. (Also, it leads to performances that start strong and then, well, wilt.)
Always make music — never play just the notes. Even if you just play scales, imagine they are part of a beautiful piece of music and play as musical as you can. Observe all the dynamic markings, mood markings, tempo markings, and always create to the most beautiful music you possibly can. Especially if you're trying to wrestle down an element that you find problematic, scientific researchers say that if you add a musical challenge to the difficult task, your brain is likely to start carving out new neural pathways.
Write on your music sheet. Sounds simple and even silly? So many musicians don't write on their sheet music, but why not? Mark spots where you forget to do something, where you always use the wrong finger, forget to take a deep breath, or forget to make crescendo, etc. Writing on your music helps your brain to improve faster by adding the visual element of learning.
Record yourself, technology can be an amazing aid — This is one of the best tools to improve yourself. Try it. It really works. Other helpful technology tools are having a metronome app, a tuner app, and a timer app, on your devices. These are all essential great tools for practicing.
Be in the right frame of mind — in positive ways — don't forget to reward yourself for good practice — and most important of all, have fun!