To discuss great musicians’ practice habits and routines, I’ll be turning to some of my most successful students.
The reason? Well, they’re all great musicians. They always have been.
Their actual music careers aren’t the best in terms of pay or airplay, but their willingness to take on the tricky task of practicing daily in the studio has all but guaranteed them a fruitful creative life.
The pianist and composer Corey Crockett, whose individual records have reached Billboard’s Top 20, is a mining student. Corey has written a lot of the music that has gotten me featured in Modern Drummer and on the cover of Rhythm.
I couldn’t write an article about these musicians’ practice habits if I weren’t sharing some of my own. So, first, Corey will provide some insight into his practice and performance patterns, then.
I’ll give my own thoughts and experience.
Corey is a perfectionist, but I believe that we all are. One time, he wrote that “I try not to put limits on my practice time” because he was afraid to fail.
This is admirable, and I admire that he knows that he can practice for ten hours and still be better the next day.
I hope that by sharing his schedule, other musicians might find a way to avoid burnout, and I’m sure that Corey will notice at least a few other musicians following this advice.
Practice at night when you are most alert
I don’t recommend getting up in the middle of the night to practice unless you have a compelling reason to do so. Corey writes, “For most days, I work from home, and it’s a habit I’ve had since I was a kid.
I prefer getting up early to begin my day and enjoy the quiet calm. My mornings vary from very early, early in the morning to around noon, so I make a habit of going to my local Starbucks in the afternoon to meet with friends.
If I don’t have any pressing business to take care of, I will come home to finish my work and then head to practice.”
If you’re getting up at 2 AM or 4 AM to get up and work for an hour, you might as well stay up all night and get your daily practice in.
When Corey has a great gig coming up, he’ll try to sleep as much as possible in the evenings before the gig so he can get in a solid practice before he plays. Also, he’s a perfectionist, so he doesn’t like to practice something and has it not sound good when he hits the stage.
Corey writes, “I make a list of everything I need to practice for the next few days or weeks before a gig. Usually, I’ll double up the list for a gig because there will often be one or two things I will need to put on the practice list.
I’ll often know how many hours I think I should practice a week in advance, and then I can work backward to come up with a reasonable practice schedule.”
Do two things at once
Corey learned early in his career that it’s hard to do two things at once, and he couldn’t rely on anyone else to get those things done for him. So, Corey learned to do two things at once.
He writes, “One way I approach this is to see if I can practice two things at once. For example, if I have a bass playing a couple of tunes simultaneously, I can either practice one of the bass pieces or the piano.
I approach it to have specific sections of the pieces that are not going to get practiced and just concentrate on those pieces. If I practice one piece without practicing the next one, my subconscious will make me skip the other piece on purpose.”
I don’t do this because I enjoy challenging myself to play many different things in the practice room. Finding the time to practice is part of my challenge, and I’m addicted to practicing.
I find it hard to practice the same things for weeks or months on end. I get bored, and I’m thinking about other things that need to get done.
That is why I have made it a practice to write down everything I want to work on before I leave the house. I’m usually playing in my car during my daily commute anyway.
It’s also nice to have a specific to-do list that can remind you what you need to work on.
Work on specific areas of your playing
One problem I have is that I like to work on too many different things. Most musicians don’t want to spend two or three weeks working on their left hand, for example.
They want to have a good basic left hand and then move on. This is not good for long-term musical development because you can get into a rut and stop working on many things and forget about things you’ve improved.
When I work on one thing, I want to work on that one thing for months. I want to work on that one thing until I have become very comfortable with it.
Then, I move on to something else.
Corey recommends working on specific areas of your playing, and he has developed a method for doing this. He writes, “One of the most useful habits I developed early in my career was to practice the same things for years at a time.
When I worked on something, I wouldn’t work on anything else until that project was complete.
I knew I could spend months or even years on a piece and not lose the “spirit” of that piece. I’m still trying to accomplish that.”
If you know what you want to work on, you’re able to focus on that specific area, and it works well for players who may want to work on certain technical things or a particular musical aspect.
Once you have worked on something for a while, the most efficient way to advance is to work on something new. However, you might have a piece that you love that you never get tired of, so it can become difficult to put it aside to work on something new.
Corey has a solution for this. He writes, “I used to have a case on my practice room floor.
It had all my music and sheet music in it. I would empty the case at the beginning of each year and put all my stuff back in it.
When I did that, I realized that I could never use the same score two years in a row. Each year, I always needed a new copy.
That made it much easier to move forward in my playing. I’d pack up the old score and throw it in the case, and I’d go into a different part of the library.
I would move to a new score for the next year and just throw the old one away.”
Nowadays, I try to pack up my music for the year each December, so I don’t start a new piece in January that I don’t want to work on for a year.
Experiment with playing on new instruments
If you are a player who wants to learn a new instrument, a good way to learn the instrument is to play on a straightforward version of it. The more you play on it, the more comfortable you will become.
Then, you can try playing it on an instrument of a different gauge.
Corey writes, “Some people think they have to learn to play a particular instrument before they can try a different instrument.
They know they will feel the difference when they play a straightforward instrument like the double bass or the violin. So they don’t try a very different instrument.
But they’ll never get anywhere. If they’d take the time to learn the difference between double bass and a guitar, then they’d be ready to take the next step when they feel ready to.”
Play short, simple pieces
If you have a pile of music that you have been working on for a while, playing it can be incredibly frustrating. You might be wasting precious time when you could be playing something new.
A great way to address this is to play short pieces over and over again. For example, one of my favorite things to play is the melody of “The Gnome,” from “Ysaye.”
I’ll play it dozens and dozens of times, but not really much more than that. Occasionally, I’ll add some improvising on it.
I still have the music written out, so I can look up each page and play that page repeatedly. But I rarely go into detail with it.
Then, I’ll work on a small-group or large-ensemble piece. For example, I recently finished up the work for an octet called “Big Bang” by Philip Corner, based on a Dadaist joke.
I have put it aside for a few months and will finish it up next year. The music was written in 24 measures, and you have to play each measure very carefully.
After I have played it a few times, I always sit back and think, “Would I really play this the same way twice?” If I have to do it a second time, I have to make some serious changes to my playing.
I usually end up spending about an hour working on the piece. Then, I’ll try something a bit more difficult, but I know I can play it, and then maybe I’ll get a chance to play it again.
Playing short pieces repeatedly can be a tremendous help to you in terms of advancing your skills.
Another great way to progress your skills is to return to a piece you love. I do this with my favorite Bach transcription, the Brandenburg Concerto’s first movement in E Major, known as “Parker.”
I’ll play this endlessly, but if I have a special purpose in mind, I might add a few extra notes or extra ideas. I really love Parker, and if I can keep returning to it year after year, I will eventually reach my maximum musical understanding level.
An even better way to develop your musical understanding is to listen to a great composer.
“Thomas Adès likes to go through an entire repertoire or a particular set of composers and listen to all their music,” says Corey. “What he likes to do is to start with a composer, you know, like
Mozart or Beethoven or Schubert.
Then you say to yourself, ‘What is this person doing that you don’t understand? Then you go on to another composer. Then you go on to another composer.'”
By listening to different composers, in turn, you’ll eventually be able to begin to understand the differences between different composers.