Creating a Practice Plan
A lot of times, when I get a piece of music to learn, I put it up on my stand, and just start trying to learn it without looking at it, thinking about it, or making a plan. For me, this can lead to a lot of wasted time and frustration. Deciding to map out my practicing allowed me to learn the music better, faster, and easier than before. Here's how I do it.
1. Pick a Timeline
Decide how much time you have to learn this piece of music. Is there a scheduled performance or lesson coming up that you need to have it prepared for? Also in this step, set a goal of how many practice sessions you want to have per week to work on this piece. Write down the end date, and then list every practice session, either by number or date, below it. It might look something like this.
2. Study the Piece
Take some time, maybe 10 or 15 minutes, to study the piece. What key/keys do you see the piece in? Are there prominent themes and variations? Are there any difficult rhythms? Do you see any techniques that you aren't familiar with or that you'll need to improve, such as multiple tonguing or range? Write down the answers to all these questions, and any other notes you might have.
3. Create an Outline
Look at all of the notes you have, and start grouping sections together. Its better to work on similar sections in the same session or week and then add on new sections than to work chronologically, from beginning to end. Start with any main themes first, followed by the section that could be the most difficult to learn, and go from there. Start by creating weekly goals, based on your timeline, and then break those down into smaller, daily goals for each practice session on your timeline. Leave a one practices session open for recording your progress every two to three weeks, and leave the last week or two for run-throughs so you can practice performing the entire piece.
4. Create a Warm-up Routine
With your notes on the piece in hand, take a look at what you wrote down about the techniques needed for this piece to be expertly performed. Take the key(s) of the piece, and incorporate those scales first. Next, add in any skills that you need to learn or skills you need to hone. This could be increasing multiple tonguing speed, practicing large intervals, or mastering a tricky rhythm. If there are certain phrases or passages that look daunting, put them next. Start slow enough that you can play it perfectly, and increase the tempo a little each practice session. Lastly, if necessary, add in a range exercise, like scales and lip slurs. Only go as high as is comfortable, and over time, your range will slowly increase to where you need it. On the same paper you wrote your daily and weekly outline, write down your warm-up routine.
5. Keep your plan on your practice stand
To keep it at the front of your mind, keep this plan on your stand, with a pencil. Check off each goal as you complete it, so you know where to start next time. Some weeks you may end up working ahead, and some weeks you may fall behind. Keeping the performance date and goals in sight will help you know exactly where you are in your learning journey, and also how far you have to go.