A musician can never stop practicing anytime in their career. I believe it was the great cellist Rostropovich (or was it Casals) who said, "If I don't practice for one day, I notice a decline in quality; if it's two days without practice, my wife notices; three days, my neighbor notices."
Over the years my practice habits have sagged. Various illnesses and physical problems struck me down hard and repeatedly for about 5 years. And, to be honest, my passion for my instrument also sagged during those periods. I eventually went through a crisis in confidence and self-respect.
During that time I saw the movie Spiderman 2. In the movie, Spiderman loses his "powers" for some mysterious reason, but which had something to do with lack of belief in himself. He goes through a crisis of identity. I related to his condition at the time. My playing had not changed much from the outside, but my belief in myself as a strong player had declined seriously.
Over my long "recovery" of confidence, I rediscovered the most basic habits of good practicing. They are: Consistency, Physical Relaxation (Poise), Patience, Focus and Efficiency. These habits, of course, are quite general and can be applied to any complex individual task.
Practicing is a lonely task. It is tedious, repetitive, frustrating, and seemingly endless. The "myth of Sisyphus", where Sisyphus pushes a huge boulder up a mountain everyday, only to find it at the bottom again the next, exemplifies the endless tediousness of practicing. But by cultivating the basic habits outlined above, one can chip away the mountain, or at least find the most efficient route to keep the boulder at the top more and more consistently.
Let's look at each habit more closely.
Consistency: This is the most basic rule for accomplishing any long term project in life. And it is primary to being a succesful musician. One of my old teachers, Robert Marcellus, claimed that the students who practiced their scales daily were the ones most likely to succeed. A local trumpet player, whose playing is the most consistent I've ever heard, warms up exactly the same way before any rehearsal or concert.
I begin the day with slow scales, which can be described as combination of long-tones and scales. I start with the lowest register of the clarinet, where the air can be relaxed and full, where the embouchure can be the softest. I play the scale one octave, whole notes, using a full sound, then descend the next half step up, continuing up the to the highest range of the instrument. I also add some legato tonguing, to be sure that muscle is also poised and focused. This way I slowly warm up the body: fingers, embouchure, tongue and air without stress. This warm also helps me be sure my body is Relaxed and Poised.
Consistency does not just mean regularity here. One must be consistent in attitude and focus during each session and during the entire practice session.
Patience: One cannot practice in a hurry. That is when the most damage is done. An uncanny aspect of the body is that it learns fast, even mistakes. A passage played wrong once takes three times to correct. Slow down, mentally and physically. Find the level at which you can play something and work from there. Anger and frustration accomplish nothing. Take a break if you are on edge. Taking many small breaks helps me stay balanced and focused.
This brings me to the next habit, Focus. One cannot practice without being alert and focused. One of the most difficult aspects of being a professional musician is the odd hours we have to keep. My orchestra can schedule performances or rehearsals anytime from 10 AM to 8 PM. My body and mind must be able to focus at any time. The obvious implication here is the importance of proper rest, diet and exercise to maintain our real instrument, the body.
Practice time must be kept clear of distractions to allow focus as intense as a surgeon's in order to refine and improve the smallest details in one's playing. There is no other way to improve. Bludgeoning away at something without close attention will only ingrain sloppy habits. This brings me to efficiency of thought and action.
Efficiency: Like a scientist, we must closely observe patterns in our playing and analyze limitations for solutions. Developing problem solving skills is crucial. Experimentation is recommended if a solution is not obvious. A good teacher can help student learn efficient problem solving.
If I am learning a difficult passage, the first thing I do is isolate the biggest problem spots. Let's say I am learning a passage of fast sixteenth notes where a group of four notes are slowing me down. I drop the rest of the passage and focus on problem group. I may repeat them slowly a few times, or try different rhythms to gain finger dexterity.
But I also look at all aspects of those notes and check off what might be causing the glitch. Is my air steady through those notes? This is often the hidden problem with technique on a wind instrument. Without steady air, no passage will flow easily.
Then I look at each change of fingering in the passage. Are the fingers moving as efficiently as possible, staying over the keys without tension or gripping? I may notice that the fingerings between just two notes requires 5 or 6 fingers to move. This may be the tripping point. If so, I'll create a trill exercise using just those two notes. This is just one example of how detailed focus can improve one tiny passage in a larger work.
During this detailed analysis, I occasionally remind myself to "stay in the room". By this I mean keep the body and mind in the physical present, so as not to lose awareness of creeping tension in any part of body or mind while focusing narrowly on a detail. Staying open physically and mentally during tedious practice is probably one of the most important habits one can cultivate as a musician.
The underlying foundation of all good playing is belief in oneself. A musician cannot accomplish much without that basic self trust. But by employing the habits detailed above, one can gain confidence and control over one's body and instrument.