Courtesy of Max Monahan
If you want to become a successful musician, the only way to achieve that goal is through a serious and realistic practice attitude.
It's no easy feat – for most people who pick up an instrument the activity stays a hobby, or a dusty Stratocaster in the corner of a room. Undoubtedly, the biggest factor in this is whether you're truly willing to put in the work to become a proficient musician, but knowing how to practice can lead you to better results faster.
Research has shown that developing a skill is nothing like cramming for an exam. It's a capability that slowly blossoms to maturity through consistent use, like working out a muscle in your body. That means, despite what your spam folder may tell you, there's no cheating your way to the top. This statement is true no matter what your specific goal is regarding your instrument. It may not be as straightforward as nailing a solo or achieving a certain level of proficiency; you may strive to be a more expressive musician or bring out a certain stylistic component of your playing.
No matter whether you're practicing your sweep-picking or your skills at a digital audio workstation, your level of success will depend on the practice that you put into your skill, even more so than innate talent. By practicing efficiently and using tried-and-true methods, you can stack the odds in your favor to reach success in your field. Cultivate these practice habits exhibited by all successful musicians to play your best and achieve your goals.
1. Operate on a schedule
Charlie Parker saw the level he wanted to play at and famously practiced upwards of 12 hours a day to reach that level. Now, you don't have to practice for that many hours a day, but you do need to apply the same kind of structure and discipline. To reach maximum potential, keep a structured schedule and stick to it. Successful musicians set their goals in stone and don't quit until they've been reached.
2. Break goals into manageable chunks
The most effective way to achieve your goals is to break them down into small, manageable, actionable steps. Did you ever take piano lessons and receive stickers for each completed exercise until you completed the whole book, a feat that previously seemed impossible? Surprise! Your teacher was training you how to become a successful musician. Next time you decide to practice, don't just wander. Set a path.
3. Warm up every time
This is an easy one! If you jump right into a grueling workout, it's likely you could hit a snag and walk away frustrated. Every athlete has a warm-up, something to get not just their body, but also their mind, in the zone. They do it at the beginning of every practice, and you should, too!
4. Record yourself
No great musician ever shied from his or her shortcomings. Quite the opposite. These are the areas you patch up to become an air-tight, sight-reading, pitch-perfect, musicianship machine, and the best way to find these areas of imperfection is to record yourself playing. Your recordings will clearly lay out your progress so you can hear your every note as many times as you want. Recording yourself will not only show you your shortcomings, but you'll be able to fully appreciate the fruits of your labor as you progress as a musician and your skills grow.
5. Sing your part
If you feel that your progress is becoming stagnant, an extremely useful technique is to put down your instrument and sing your part. This will remove any instrumental inhibition you may have and take you straight to the music. You'll actually have to feel the pitches firsthand instead of just pushing through them. Plus, you'll never know when you have to bust out those singing chops!
6. Switch up your techniques
Don't waste your time on mediocre results, and don't get completely stuck in dated methods. You're a developing musician and your regime should develop with you. The biggest, most successful companies – even those that seemingly couldn't operate any more efficiently – are constantly pouring resources into improving their processes. Lean on proven successors, but never become completely content. Periodically reevaluate your methods, and in doing so, you'll continue to learn about yourself.
7. Keep a clear head
Above all else, the goal of practice is to improve a skill by addressing and correcting mistakes in an effective nature. Using the above techniques, you can lay out clear goals with methods tailored to your own skill set and give it your all. When you're in the middle of a grueling practice session for a big performance, the most important thing in that moment can often be remembering to take a deep breath and remain calm. Once your have your path laid out, all that's left is to keep a clear head and focus.
As explained by world famous cellist Yo Yo Ma, you'll find that after you've taken care of all the logistics and organization, you'll reach a higher level of focus than previously thought to be possible. This is the state where you achieve greatness – where successful musicians live. Great practice habits all aim to minimize interference, to drive your progress towards your goal on as straight a path as possible.
Don't be afraid to set a big goal. Find the techniques that work best for you, work hard, and implement what may be the most important secret of them all... enjoy yourself!
Max Monahan is a bassist and a writer living in Los Angeles. He spends his time working for an audio licensing website and shredding sweet bass riffs.