Get some exercise!
Pablo Picasso is quoted as saying, "I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it" - which is an interesting thought for us as musicians. How do I best improve my playing or singing? Is it by practising that which I can already do - or is it by focussing on that which currently eludes me?
I've been struck recently by the way that sports people improve their results. Do football players get better at football by taking on another team? Well, there are skills to learn during a game but, as Brian Clough once said, matches are generally won before they step foot on the pitch. A footballer spends most of their time increasing general fitness, dribbling the ball between cones, repeatedly taking penalties or trying to save them or running in short bursts to replicate what happens on the pitch. Likewise, in a newspaper article, Louis Hamilton said "Do people underestimate how much we have to do before we get in the car? Oh yes. No-one believes the stuff we have to do".
So as musicians, what can we do to improve our performance, before we step foot into the pieces we're working on? Here are some ideas:
Singers - those exercises you use to warm up? They're also strengthening and improving your voice! The more you sing them, the more they will improve the muscle tone around your vocals chords and improve your ability to place notes just where you need them.
Instrumentalists - found something tricky in a piece you're playing? Try playing the scale or arpeggio for the key of the piece (and the related keys). And then look for a study or exercise that will help you work on that particular part of your technique - maybe it's articulation, tone, dynamics or breathing. Working on that skill outside of the piece will improve your technique much more than just bashing away at that annoying bar (or worse still, ignoring it and just getting better at getting it wrong!) - and it will be less frustrating too!
Listen to and watch other musicians performing your piece - how have they interpreted it? How have they overcome the tricky part? What else can you learn from their performance?
Before you start practising your pieces, spend some time getting some exercise - long notes, scales and exercises are the best way to start.
Build your stamina - keep pushing yourself further and longer!
Don't be tempted to sing or play through the whole thing every time - that's too much like getting straight on the pitch!
I've challenged myself to play at least five technical exercises every time I practise - I'm getting serious about getting myself musically fit, so that I can approach any musical task fit and ready to go. I'll need to be disciplined, just like I would if I wanted to get physically fit - but the benefits will last a musical lifetime!