In the second offering from my Top Tips for Trad Musicians series we’re going to explore the idea of developing good habits as musicians. Of course, the best habit – the one that will most impact your playing, and the one I’m most frequently asked about – is a good practice routine.
That’s not the only good behaviour we musicians need to establish however. Keep reading to explore some of the ways outside of picking up your instrument in which you can develop your musicianship.
Developing an Effective Practice Routine
One of the best investments you can make in your music making is establishing an effective practice routine.
Developing effective practice methods will make practising easier and more efficient, helping you to progress much faster. It’s a must for musicians who struggle with self-motivation and want to learn how to work independently.
Here are some simple steps to help you out:
- P – Prepare: Don’t just launch straight into your practice session without a plan. What are you going to work on? What do you want to achieve? Once you’ve devised a plan make sure to warm up. Gentle stretching, breathing exercises, simple scales, and playing through your favourite tune are perfect steps to get ready for a great practice session.
- R – Regular routine: Practising on a whim isn’t quite as useful as establishing a regular routine and sticking to it. Frequent practice will do wonders for muscle memory and memorisation.
- A – Aims: What are the goals for this particular practice session? Aimless practice is detrimental to progressing musically. Set simple achievable targets for each session and decide on an end goal.
- C – Condense: Break your practice down into small manageable chunks. This will make your practice session more manageable. I highly recommend setting a timer and focusing on any one idea for no more than ten minutes at a time.
- T – Take your time: Patience is key when practising and playing at a slower pace is far better for your musical development. Speaking of timing, I highly recommend using a metronome to help develop a strong sense of pulse and explore playing at different tempos.
- I – Identify problems: Conscious practice is far more conducive to making progress. Pay attention as you play and identify any issues that arise along the way. Take note and you can set aside time in your next practice session to work on these areas.
- C – Concentrate: Distraction-free practice is best. If you’re easily distracted and find it hard to focus, make sure to do yourself a favour by setting yourself up in a designated practice area with as few interruptions and disturbances as possible. Make sure to turn off your phone notifications!
- E – Evaluate: Be honest with yourself. Assess each practice session once you’re finished (recording yourself is a very helpful tool to help with this task). Don’t over analyse, but taking a moment to reflect can help you identify areas to improve on next time. Make sure to be kind to yourself and congratulate yourself for taking the time to practise.
Rather than just hoping for the best each day, establish a practice cue that will remind you to practise. Here are some simple ideas:
- Set a daily alert on your phone
- Write it on your calendar (the old fashioned way)
- Keep your instrument in sight and in easy reach
- Set up a designated practice space
Developing Good Habits
While an effective practice routine is probably the best habit any musician can develop, there are a few more that will serve you well on your musical journey.
1. Find Your Motivation
Every musician has a different motivation for learning to play. Some want to master their instrument and tour the world, others want to preserve their cultural heritage, while many more simply play for the love of the music.
Whatever your motivation may be, it’s the key to helping you make your way on your musical journey. Understanding why you play will help appreciate the value of all your hard work. Each day you move one step closer to achieving your musical potential and becoming a confident, skilled musician – but there’s no denying that a motivated musician will reach that goal faster than others.
For those who may find themselves lacking in motivation or uncertain of their goals, I highly recommend establishing a reward system:
Creating positive associations with your music making will make you want to pick up your instrument more often. If you treat yourself to a reward after your practice session for example, you’re far more likely to associate practising (no matter how difficult you may find it) with positive emotions.
Your reward doesn’t have to be anything elaborate, it just needs to be something that makes you feel good. Something tasty like a piece of chocolate or a nice cup of tea, listening to your favourite song, having a little dance or jumping for joy – these are all simple rewards that work well.
I know some musicians who like to keep a small packet of sweets (candy for my US readers) nearby and treat themself to one any time they achieve a practice goal. Please note I take no responsibility for any expanding waistlines that may result from this method!
2. Boost Your Confidence
Believing in yourself is one of the best habits you can develop as a musician. Confidence is key! Learning to play an instrument at any stage of life can be a challenging experience so make sure to be kind to yourself, especially on the bad days. We all have them.
Most importantly, don’t spend your time worrying about anyone being better than you. The wonderful thing about music is that there’s always someone who’s at a different stage of their journey. So don’t be disheartened if it seems like another musician knows more tunes, or learns faster by ear – maybe they do, but there’s plenty of room for us all in this big wide musical world.
3. Calm Your Nerves
I’ve know many wonderful musicians who have been prone to stage fright and for whom playing music in public caused significant anxiety. Alas, some never managed to overcome it and, as a result, set their instruments aside for good. Solo performance isn’t for everyone…
A huge appeal of Traditional Irish Music however is the social, communal aspect of meeting with other musicians at sessions to share tunes and play together.
If you’re a musician who finds the idea of playing in public nerve-wracking, especially at a session, it’s best to tackle the issue as early as possible so that you don’t miss out on this uplifting experience.
Here are some helpful things to do when you’re feeling nervous:
- Take a deep breath. Slow, deep breathing will slow your heart rate and reduce your stress
- Remember your motivation. Think of all the things you love about music and why you want to play it in the first place.
- Reward yourself. Remember that reward system you put in place? Treat yourself before you start playing to trick your brain into releasing some of those endorphins, helping you to relax.
- Focus on the music. When we play we are merely vessels for the melodies that flow through us. It’s a truly magical experience – one from which you shouldn’t let fear hold you back.
Of course knowledge is also an incredibly empowering tool, so don’t be afraid to do your research before visiting your first session, or any new musical scenario for the first time.
In fact, I have a helpful guide on the ins and outs of Irish music sessions that may be just what you need: The Irish Trad Session Explained
4. Immerse Yourself in Music
Listen to as much music as possible! This may seem obvious but listening to recordings by legendary musicians will do wonders for your own playing – as well as providing plenty of inspiration. You’d be surprised by how many musicians overlook this simple habit.
Not only that however: go to concerts and live performances, attend Irish music festivals, play in sessions, build relationships with other musicians. Immerse yourself fully in the Irish music community and you will reap the benefits.
Feeling inspired? Why not browse our selection of traditional Irish musical instruments?