Mantras to help cure the "insanity" in your practice...

Effective practice forces us to build and repeat good habits. The difficult part is deciding what a good habit is, what is “good” and what is “detrimental” – for lack of a better term.  How to get from what we hear from ourselves to the ideal concept in our heads.  The short of it, is by practicing efficiently and effectively. 

Finding ways to practice effectively is one of the hardest things we do as musicians. Practice sessions inevitably get derailed for all sorts of reasons.  This is where the insanity creeps in…

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Often attributed to Albert Einstein, Mark Twain, Ben Franklin, etc. pick your poison…It’s a quote heard often and used on many different inspirational posters, in many different languages.  Even though we don’t exactly know who it was glued to, I’d say that anyone who has been attributed with this quote ended up being pretty successful in their careers.  Why?  Because these individuals don’t accept mediocre results, and they devise and revise plans, often manipulating their original plans to get the best possible results.

When things get derailed in our practice sessions, do we even notice?  How do we know we are continually making progress and haven’t just gone on autopilot, doing the same stale things that provide the same results?  How do we know we’ve brought this insanity into the practice room?

I use this quote often because it seems to be effective in getting students to understand how important it is to think and question when we practice.  Too often we let our minds wander to and from what we are trying to achieve, this is only human.  Don’t worry!  It happens to the best players; however, these players know exactly how to reorient themselves in the practice room and vary things up to try and get the elite results.  Avoiding the insanity and increasing the efficiency in your practice will only aid you in getting better, faster.

Here are a few different phrases and techniques you can use to try and get back on track if things get derailed. 

Make mistakes fast.   Realize these mistakes even faster.  Resolve these issues slowly.  Practice the solution even slower.

“Make mistakes faster” This is a phrase I’ve heard lots of software developers use.  Software developers have thousands and thousands of characters of “code” they input into a program to build something that will replicate the desired product, every time.  The slightest error can have extreme consequences. By allowing themselves to make mistakes fast and realizing these mistakes even faster, they help ensure quality and that their work is reliable. The more they make mistakes and realize them, they learn from this and retain this information.  As musicians, we try and approach our fundamentals and basic production, much in the same way.  If musicians make mistakes fast in the practice room, and start to become aware of these mistakes even faster, it is likely they will learn from these mistakes and change their approach to achieve a different result for the future.  Understanding that the progress on mistakes found fast, will ultimately be slow, but rebuilding good habits is a long venture, which I can guarantee will be worth your time.    

Keep your mind and your ears moving.

When I first learned how to drive, my driving instructor told me to “keep my eyes moving.”  From my side mirrors to my rear-view mirror, to my blind spot, this makes you an active and engaged driver.  When I’m the most aware of my playing, my mind and ears are moving and constantly questioning.  From my tone, to my intonation, to my rhythm…Was that in tune, if it wasn’t, pull out the tuner or drones.  Was that the best tone I could have used for that passage, if it wasn’t, record it and figure out methods of making the buzz more efficient.  Is that rhythm right in the pocket?  No?  Metronome and drum machines.  Be active with your mind and ears, and have constant vigilance to fix the problems with innovative (to you) methods.


Can this be easier? If it isn’t easy, MAKE IT EASY.

Beyond understanding and producing good tone, time and intonation, or replicating good style, articulation, range mastery and interpretation; the goal is to make these things sound as easy as possible.  Ease comes from mastery; mastery comes from efficient, effective repetition.

“Efficiency is doing the right things; effectiveness is doing the right things all the time.” - Bill Gates.   

The path toward ease ironically isn’t easy at all.  Here is a tip to simplify things: quality repetition is helped by taking a difficult passage, chopping it up into smaller units and slowing it down.  Once you have achieved mastery of each unit, start to think about ease and increase the tempo.  Once each unit is easy, add a unit and master the combination of the two, eventually adding all the units back in and making them all seamless.

Don’t be busy, just be productive.

Just because you spend four to five hours in a practice room, does NOT mean you are getting four to five hours of quality practice time. 

Michael Mulcahy likes to say that every minute you spend in a practice room, you’re depositing time into a practice bank.  If you have two hours of good, quality, productive practice, you’ve put two hours of credit into your bank.  If you use the other two hours as time where you are building bad, lazy unconcentrated habits, those two hours exhaust the two hours of good practice you had just deposited into your practice bank.  Therefore, it is so important to be concentrating on ways to keep variance and efficiency in your practice, and avoiding the insanity that provides the same tired results.


Reminding yourself of these mantras, and repeating them when you start to bring the insanity into the practice room, it gives you a cognitive way of challenging that insanity that inevitably comes into our everyday routine.

By the way…it is possible to be insane AND productive…Please check out the video below.  If we can all be efficient as this in our practice, we would all be in a better place.