Nine Steps to the Art of Practice

Like many middle-schoolers, I had the opportunity to choose an instrument and join the school band. My parents vetoed my drumming dreams, so I ended up trying the clarinet. (It wasn’t the same.)

As part of the agreement for participating in band, I was required to practice for half an hour every day. So every day, I would set up in the basement with the chair and music stand, assembled instrument and music, and work on notes, scales, and songs.

With all the squeaking, I do wonder how long it took my parents to regret that practice requirement. But, I did improve, learning proper embouchure techniques and the upper registers, and eventually learning to play bass clarinet and baritone saxphone — no small feat for someone just over five feet tall.

While I never became more than an average player, the practice was the most important part of the entire experience. That practice is something I keep coming back to as part of thinking about play.

By way of a basic definition, play is an activity where your mind wanders, explores, and experiments without fear or self-consciousness. In other words, play is doing for the sake of doing. It can bring much joy, and it should be done by everyone, regardless of age, for their mental health and well-being.

Play works best, though, when it is approached as a practice. According to Thomas M. Sterner in The Practicing Mind, practice is “the repetition of an activity with the purposeful awareness and intention of accomplishing an intended goal.”

Practice is a key part of creating. “Like playing [a musical instrument], practicing is a creative activity,” writes Tom Heany in First, Learn to Practice. “Creativity, it turns out, is often practice in disguise,” write Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, and Katie Yezzi in their book Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better.

While practices vary among creators, several patterns emerge when determining what makes practice effective.

1. Have a plan.

Delving into an everyday practice without a plan soon results in boredom and burnout. A plan is essential for guiding practice and giving it purpose.

The key for the plan is to be specific in your goals, which should be measurable. “Learning how to edit ambisonic sound” is too broad for a practicing goal. “Making 30, 5-minute ambisonic recordings in different locations” is more workable. You can see the progress and the results, or the lack thereof.

2. Start small.

Choose one aspect at a time to focus on.


For example, editing ambisonic sound requires multiple steps, from creating the recording to learning the editing software and from actually editing the tracks to testing them within the devices.

Starting small means choosing one step and focusing on something within that one step. In my case, I started with creating the recordings. Currently, I just listen to them and sometimes share them on SoundCloud. Figuring out editing software will come later.

And chances are, you’re not focusing small enough. Musicians, for example, might focus on the same eight quarter notes within a song as opposed to Pachelbel’s entire “Canon in D.”

3. Go slow.

Both Heany and Lemov, Woolway, and Yezzi emphasize this point. In Fully Engaged: Using the Practicing Mind in Daily Life, Thomas M. Sterner expands this idea further: “Most of us, when we are setting goals, disempower ourselves at the get-go by investing little or no effort into understanding a realistic time frame for accomplishing those goals.”

The key here is to assume that practicing and reaching goals will take more time than you might think. I learned this lesson when trying to insert music into a video through a video editing program. Not a quick process, and I’m not just referring to the rendering time.

4. Have a procedure.

For each practice session, follow a procedure for setting up, for practicing, and for wrapping up.

For filmmaking, this might include equipment setup and takedown. For musicians, this might include putting the instrument together before playing and cleaning it after playing.

5. Make your space.

Designated spaces for practices are important, and these spaces will vary depending on your art.

They need not be physical spaces, for example. For writers, using the same laptop or keeping all their tools in one messenger bag might serve as enough of a “space.”

They also need not be the only space creators, well, create in. Since many filmmakers go into the world to make their recordings, their production setup and its surroundings might become part of that space. I find the chroma gaming keyboards from Razer a key part of creating my space, for example.

This space does need to be one that you can control, however, at least in the sense of the practice process. Heany writes, “Whatever you can do to make your practice environment ideal for you, do it beofre you start, and do it every time.”

6. Document and reflect.

Part of an effective practice is keeping a log. Along with the date, logs can include what goal worked on, what part of the goal addressed, and what can or should be changed for the next practice session. While this logging might seem tedious, its review shows progress, and reflection on that progress can guide future goals and practices.

7. Avoid traps.

This reflection also will help with avoiding traps that can occur with practicing, such as repetition without improvement or direction. While repetition is required of practice, it should not be done mindlessly.

8. Practice regularly.

Practice is not something to approach piecemeal. Instead, it must happen on a regular basis, preferably for short periods daily instead of long periods just on weekends.

Part of that regular practice should include plans for each session. Lemov, Woolway, and Yezzi suggest planning each session down to the minute.

9. Have fun.

Writes Heany, “If you don’t enjoy practicing, change it until you do.”

Ultimately, practice should be like play — fun.

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