We all wish we had more time to practice, but we actually have more time than we think. Consider this approach when your instrument is far away.
One of my most useful practice sessions this year was two hours spent on a flight from NYC to LA, eyes closed. I was thinking about intervals, in perhaps excruciating detail.
Counterintuitive as it sounds, efficient practice doesn’t always need an instrument. In fact, an instrument can sometimes be a distraction.
Think of it like this:
An instrument is vital to understanding music produced by the instrument itself, like learning how to make pleasing sounds, dynamics, and the nuances of physical techniques.
But if you’re trying to memorize a concept that you apply to an instrument, like scale patterns or ways to use the circle of fifths, half the battle is getting the concept usefully locked into your mind before getting it onto your instrument. Eventually, you don’t want to even be doing much conscious thinking about it at all, but getting there takes laying a good foundation.
That’s your opportunity to practice on the subway, in waiting rooms, walking to lunch, and wherever else you go that your instrument cannot follow.
The tools you need
Although you don’t need an instrument, you do need the right mindset. Let these two points guide you to useful practice on the go.
Control over your thoughts: Focusing intently on one subject, any subject, for an extended period of time without letting your mind wander is hard. The ability to steer your mind in the direction you want is ultimately what separates effective mental practice from daydreaming about music.
And to do that, you need to get used to entering a controlled mental state and letting distractions flow by without bothering you. Luckily, there’s a popular activity that helps you improve at just that – meditation.
Whether or not you’re enthusiastic about any of the spiritual connotations, meditation develops an awareness of how your thoughts operate, and the ability to guide them, that’s often difficult to cultivate through other means.
Concepts you understand and want to use faster: Practice concepts you understand well enough to explain, but are slow to execute when you try to use them on your instrument.
If you’re trying to mentally construct all the positions of a new scale on the guitar neck, but aren’t crystal-clear about why each note belongs in the scale in the first place, you run the risk of teaching yourself the wrong things.
So minimize your chances of picking up bad habits. Whenever you’re playing and stall out trying to execute an idea, pause for a moment and add that to your mental list. Maybe it’s freezing when you’re trying to find chord tones to solo over, or stuttering when you try to repeat a rhythm you just played.
Whatever it is, the mental hang that caused to you stall out is your target to isolate and work over in your mental practice.
Alex Carter is a musician and digital strategist based in Brooklyn, New York. He enjoys a good puzzle (other than “why did that suddenly stop making sound”), whether related to music or anything else.