Hindsight is 20/20. With age comes wisdom. The greatest teacher is experience. Whatever your adage of choice, they all emphasize that life is a learning process. Here are some little things that would have made my life easier if I had started doing them earlier:
Keeping track of my repertoire (especially collaborative).
This one is a little obvious, since nearly every competition/school/festival asks for your solo rep list. But if you play piano, keeping tabs on your duo/chamber repertoire will save you so much time and stress in the future if you ever apply for collaborative assistantships, chamber festivals, or accompanying jobs. Start keeping track of everything you play–sonatas, concerto accompaniments, showpieces, songs–so that you’re not up at 1 AM one day racking your brains for the German titles of those two Brahms songs you played that one time with that one mezzo two years ago. (“It was something about love…and flowers? There was some kind of nature for sure!!”)
Going to more concerts and operas.
Keep track of your school, local symphony, and local opera house’s concert schedule. Take advantage of the student discounts you have now and will never have again! (Trust me, those tickets can get very pricey.) YouTube is great, but it’s a sorry replacement for seeing a live performance. Not only will you be exposed to a lot of repertoire that you might not normally seek out, but you will get to observe the ways great performers produce sound, conduct themselves on stage, and work with other musicians. And it’s so important to get outside of the bubble of your instrument! Especially for pianists, who have so little opportunity to experience orchestra music. And I know some people have a difficult time with opera, particularly because of the length of some operas, but–as much as we instrumentalists love to make fun of singers–there’s so much we can learn from hearing the voice, the most organic and human instrument that exists.
Practicing scales and arpeggios (aka eating my vegetables).
My teachers up through high school all made me practice scales, but I definitely did not practice and internalize them to the extent I should have. And arpeggios? Nasty creatures. After starting my undergrad, my scales fell to the wayside as I realized how much time I had to spend on my solo repertoire. But years later, I noticed a significant leap in my technique after I started taking scales and arpeggios seriously, using them as an exercise to monitor and improve the way my hands moved on the keyboard. Just 10 minutes a day will do it. Not only does it help technique, but you will notice an improvement in your harmonic knowledge and sightreading abilities.
I would record when I played for other people in practice rooms and in studio class, but I never thought to use self-recording as a serious practice tool. I knew my brass player friends did this all the time, but laziness/lack of habit kept me from recording myself–until late one night, I observed a violinist practicing alone in a corner room. His computer was on the piano, and he would play a short bit and walk over to his computer. Then play it again and walk over to his computer. At first I got all judgey and thought, he’s taking way too many Facebook breaks. Then I realized he was recording himself, and it clicked for me that I needed to do this in order to know what sounds were actually coming out of the piano. Our ear is so impaired when we’re playing because our mind is occupied with a dozen other things like technique and memory and voicing. But it’s so helpful to record just a tiny bit–maybe one difficult passage that you’re not sure about–and listen to it with a critical ear to hear exactly what it is you are doing, and figure out exactly what it is you need to change to get the effect you want.