Improve Your Music Practice with a Checklist


Do you find that your practice wanders? That despite your best intentions to focus, you often find yourself fixing mistakes as they come instead of targeting specific sections?


If so, a simple checklist can help you dig deeper and lock in your learning.


A checklist simplifies the decision-making process and gives you more mental bandwidth for focusing on improvement. It gives you a visual reference for tracking your efforts, instead of jumping back and forth like you’re playing Whack-a-mole.


Here’s an easy way to use a checklist to focus your practice.


1. Break each piece into logical, practicable sections.

Depending on the complexity of the piece, this could mean anything from a phrase to a larger chunk of the work. You’ll want these sections to be small enough for several focused repetitions in just a few minutes.


2. Make your checklist.

 Write the title of the piece, and the measure numbers of each section/phrase below. Here’s an example checklist of a few Tenor solos from the Messiah:


page title/section
160 Thy Rebuke
161 Behold and See
162 He was cut off
161 But thou didst not leave

(Tip: if you’re working on exercises or pieces from a book, include the page number so that you save time finding it)


3. Focus on only one section at a time.

Don’t go onto anything else until you have improved exactly what you want to improve, or until you’ve decided that you need additional information.


4. Check off those sections that are up to your standards

 You can use an easy 3-check system for different levels: One check is for basic fluency. Two checks means it’s consistent and musical. Three checks means it’s polished and performance ready. You can also mark sections that you’d like to focus on next time, or write down metronome markings to track your progress on speed.


5. Check off transitions between sections

 Once you’ve mastered two or more sections, you’ll also want to make sure that the transitions between them are smooth and musical. A simple checkmark between lines can be used to help you keep track of this.


6. Date completed pieces.

If you keep track of completion dates, you can revisit them at appropriate intervals. Beware of the tendency toward perfectionism: you can still revisit imperfect pieces later, but waiting for perfection can leave you stalled or stretching your attention between too many pieces. If you have polished all of the sections and all of the transitions, you can feel confident checking off the piece.


One of the foundational principles of The Practice Habit is to track what matters. A business owner would never depend on her memory to keep track of outstanding invoices, but too many musicians depend on their memory to keep track of their practice goals. And that’s a poor use of brain power.


Give your brain the opportunity to focus on improving your musicianship instead.


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