This is one of the reasons I have developed my seminar, "The Scientific Method of Practicing," that explores how to apply logical (and sometimes explicitly scientific) methodology in the practice room. I have taught it at The University of Texas and Baylor University, where it has been very well received, and I am scheduled to teach it at the Brownsville Flute Festival in April. For those of you who are not near enough to attend, below is a description of what I refer to as the first fundamental element of practicing, taken from the handout I distribute when I teach the seminar. I hope it's helpful!
Secure the Parameters: Set and accomplish limited, concrete goals.
On cop shows, it is not out of place when detectives are chasing a bad guy for someone to yell out, “Secure the perimeter!” This means that the detectives chasing the baddie must surround the location where said baddie is hiding so that he/she cannot escape. In our practice, this translates into knowing both where we must practice and what we must practice: not just a perimeter in space (i.e., a length of music) but multiple musical parameters. Which part of our music needs our attention the most? The opening phrase? The beginning of the second theme? Moreover, what are we listening for? Good tone? Fluid technique? Impeccable intonation?
This can seem overwhelming, which is why we must secure the parameters the way detectives would secure the perimeter. Would the police surround the entire neighborhood to accomplish their goal? No! That is terribly inefficient, and the culprit stands a pretty good chance of getting away. The same thing applies to our practice. If we try to practice too much at once (e.g., too long a section, too many elements at the same time), we risk getting little to nothing learned in any lasting way.
Setting concrete, limited goals is the best way to secure the parameters of our practice. Unless the goal is to build our endurance by playing through large sections, entire movements, or whole pieces (which, honestly, comes pretty late in the game when learning a piece), we should confine ourselves to the smallest section possible. If we are first learning a piece, we might start at the end of a large section, practicing just the last couple of measures. Once those are secure, we can work backward, adding one or two directly previous measures. Once those are secure, we can work backward again, and again, until we have arrived at the beginning of the large section. (Dr. Bob Duke, Professor of Music and Human Learning at The University of Texas at Austin calls this “backward chaining.”)
If we are in the middle of working on a piece, then we should be familiar with specific places that need our attention. We can then choose a small section that contains a problem--ideally, this will be confined to the one or two notes that represent the heart of the problem--and practice just that until the problem is rectified. (It is worth noting that if we have trouble rectifying the problem on this microscopic level, if is appropriate to ask ourselves if we are sure we know what the problem is so that we are not misdirecting energy.) Once the problem is fixed, we can expand our scope by adding a note or two after, or a note or two before (or both at the same time if we can do it without getting carried away). If we can play the music in this expanded context securely, we can expand again, and again, until we are nailing the complete passage from beginning to end.
Finally, let us address “the problem” that mentioned above. Problems are not negatives; they are simply, objectively, places that require our careful attention. If we know the exact nature of a problem (e.g., intonation, technique, articulation, etc.), we must be careful to limit our practice to that one parameter at first. Once we have it where we want it, we can expand to include other parameters, much as we can expand the length of music we practice once it has been secured.