The Most Essential Constant In My Improvement

This morning I found myself reflecting upon the many ways my approach to practicing music has changed over the more than 35 years I’ve been playing. Many of the things that I used to believe were absolutely essential to my improvement now lie by the wayside in the realm of tested, yet ultimately unhelpful, ideas and procedures.

When evaluating the cause and effect relationship of improving through practice, time is always a good indicator for what’s working and what’s not. At a certain point (if we’re fortunate and mindful) we realize something just isn’t helping, and we move on.

That’s a natural part of the learning process. It’s not a straight line, but instead, a journey of exploration and discovery. Even with the best teachers, the clearest intentions, it’s still a step into the unknown. Persistence, patience and passion are the fuel for this journey.

And in this journey, we discard those ideas and practices that clearly don’t help us. That’s not to say we’ve wasted time on these things; that’s just the reality of our own learning process. We have to experiment and be open and creative in attempting to solve our problems.

I have thrown away many more ideas, techniques, approaches, attitudes, procedures, and skills than I have kept.

But the one thing that I have kept,  the one skill that has most continually evolved and grown in relation to my improvement as a musician is this: the ability to stop. In particular, knowing when and how to stop.

In my previous posts I’ve written about the value of stopping. Today I’d like to talk more specifically about the ways this “when and how” stopping skill has helped me.

It’s important to keep in mind one of the most important objectives of a constructive practice session: to give yourself the experiences of control over your instrument and the elements of music. This might involve slowing tempos down, analyzing and deciding upon fingerings, directing breathing in a particular way, etc. To achieve these experiences, the pursuit of quality must be put squarely in front of the pursuit of quantity.

Yet it is often this pursuit of quantity that makes a practice session far less productive than it should be.

How often have you practiced something over and over again just to make the same mistake in the same way? Perhaps you practice a particular passage 25 times, and out of 25 times, you played it to your liking maybe twice (not a very encouraging percentage). And how often have you had the experience of practicing something difficult, and actually making it worse as the practice session continues?

In both these cases, the inability to stop has hamstrung your progress. Tension, frustration and dissatisfaction follow when this happens.

Whenever I’m having a less than productive practice session, it is more often than not because I’ve lost touch with my ability to stop and redirect my efforts. Fortunately for me, I can recognize this fairly early into my practice session and change course.

Here are some of the specifics of when and how I stop that help me the most:

  • In the moment-For a large portion of my practice time I give myself permission to stop at any moment and for any reason. It could be because I’m sensing an old habit of tension arising, which I’d like to prevent. It could be because I’m rushing the tempo in the same place in a particular passage. It could be because I just don’t like my sound in a particular passage. I allow myself to stop, investigate, and clarify my perception and intentions. (I also practice a certain amount without allowing myself to stop, which helps me deal with the flow and demands of a real performance.)
  • Between takes-Whenever I’m practicing a particular melodic pattern or exercise, I consciously stop between takes. I do this to use my awareness of how I might be tensing in my body, as well as to redirect my intentions and energy for the next take. This is most challenging when the quality of the take I just played is less than I’d hoped for. My impulse is to jump right back into “trying again”. Yet if I don’t pause, I tend to “try again” with the same misdirected efforts as before (which yields the same results and starts a downward spiral of frustration). By stopping for a moment, I hugely increase the odds that my next take will be even better.
  • Knowing when “enough is enough”-One of the most challenging decisions to make is when to stop working at a particular exercise, pattern, tune, etude, etc. I’ve grown rather cognizant of finding what could be called a “point of diminishing returns” with respect to the amount of time I spend in each practice session on a particular thing. It’s important to stop while I’m still on top (playing each take with the best quality possible), and to be able to peacefully step away from the work. By doing this, not only do I accumulate a large proportion of “correct experiences” (good quality), but also, I finish feeling optimistic and enthusiastic about approaching the work the next day.
  • Making rest an essential part of my practice time-I now make a calculated aim in determining the work/rest ratio of each practice session. I spend no more than about 15 minutes on any one thing without taking at least a 2 or 3 minute pause, maybe to stretch or have some water. For every 50 minutes I practice, I lie down in constructive rest for 5 or 10 minutes. This enables me to spend long hours at practice if I need to, with not only productive results, but also, feeling easy and comfortable. Avoiding anything that even remotely seems like fatigue is crucial to my decision making process with respect to my practice goals for the day. Stopping before I get tired.
  • Letting it go-After trying a particular idea, exercise, concept, approach, etc., for a particular, pre-determined period of time, I stop to assess the situation and make a decision about whether or not I’m helping myself with my choice. If there seems to be no improvement in a reasonable amount of time  (I’m talking weeks or months, here), I just stop practicing it, and instead, re-think/explore other options. I’m still perplexed by the amount of musicians I encounter who are practicing things (often for years!) that clearly are not helping them. Yet they can’t seem to let these things go. That becomes a constant hinderance to their growth.

So consider the idea of stopping more. It takes wisdom to know when. It takes a clear conviction to know how. (It starts with you simply making a decision that you stay with.)

You can shift your priorities. Don’t just “allow” yourself to stop. Make it a deliberate objective  of your practice. Instead of asking yourself, “How much did I practice today?”, or even, “How well did I play today?”, you can ask, “How successful was I at stopping today?” “How many times did I stop today where I might have not stopped before?”

If you cultivate the wisdom and skill in stopping, you’ll love what happens in your practice.


  1. Shelby says

    Thanks for another very useful post! We know about these things, but it’s so good to be reminded of it again and again.
    I will definitely look at my practice with your advice in mind during the next sessions.

  2. says

    I think this post is pure gold. You give us so many great ideas for structuring our practice times here. I fact, they are so good, perhaps writing a little bit more about each in a series would be beneficial?
    In my own case, I have found that goal-setting has been key, in combination with a piece of advice I found from Dame Nellie Melba (soprano from early 20th century). She suggested that practice sessions using the voice (or the instrument) should be no longer than about 20 minutes.
    I took this to heart. I now make a definite goal for my practice session, and commit to spending no more than 20 minutes. When I have worked on the passage/technique I chose as my goal, I stop.
    I have found that the discipline of this has been beneficial not just in my recorder playing, but in my Alexander Technique studies as well. And after a little while, I found that I could increase the number of times in a day when I could pick up my instrument. Now choosing a goal, doing the work, and stopping with a sense of satisfaction is part of my daily routine, and I wouldn’t be without it!
    I can’t wait to try out some of your ideas, Bill, to further refine my practice times – especially stopping between ‘takes’!

    • Bill says

      Jennifer, so good to hear from you! Your 20 minute practice limit is very similar to my own, and it’s something I encourage all my AT music students to aim for. I think we absorb these kinds of learning experiences most effectively in small amounts. As a musician, my typical day has several practice sessions, sometimes 2 or 3 “mini” sessions back to back with 5 minutes of constructive rest between each short period is one practice session. And sometimes one 15 or 20 minute period by itself stands alone as a practice session. The bottom line is, that by giving myself lots of rest, and time to absorb, and (as you point out) stay with my goal for each session (very important!), I get so much more accomplished. That, as you know, is staying with the means-whereby. Thanks for sharing! Hope you’re well.

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