How to Practice: Getting the Most From Your Practice Time

If you ask any experienced and accomplished musician about practicing one thing that most will tell you is that they are now able to get more out of the same amount of practice than they were able to as a student. In part this is due to the fact that they are better musicians now and can simply move through more material faster, but this is not the only reason. Practicing, like performing, is a skill that gets better the more you do it. Since we want get the most out of our practicing we should not only be learning the art of performing, but also the art of practicing.

Many of us don’t have as much time to practice during the week that we wish. Even those of us who are blessed with an abundance of practice time often don’t utilize that time effectively. What follows below is some advice on how you can maximize results from your practice session and get more benefit from the time that you do have available.

General Advice
Probably the most common difficulty music students have with practicing is just getting around to it. College students have a lot of required work to accomplish, and for those taking private studio instruction, the amount of academic credit they receive just doesn’t add up to the amount of work required. In addition, rehearsals and performances can drain the student’s energy to the point of where practicing can become a chore. In many ways practicing should be like a rehearsal or athletic workout, something that you do whether or not you feel like it. If you can schedule regular practice sessions and stick to it you will be much better off than if you just practice when you feel you have the time and energy.

Often times we can have a sudden burst of inspiration and energy and want to get a lot of practice in during a short period of time. Or we might have an important performance or audition coming up and we want to be prepared. The impulse can be to try to do a lot of practicing in one long session. This is actually less beneficial than more practice sessions that last a shorter period of time. Studies have shown that humans learn best when materials are learned in regular repetitions over shorter periods of time. Instead of practicing for three hours straight, break them up into 3 one hour sessions with some time in between away from your instrument.

Similar studies also suggest that the human mind can only really focus for periods of 20 minutes before attention wanders. To help combat this, break up your practice sessions into periods of around 20 minutes with a short 2-5 minute break in between. When you return to practicing your mind will be better able to focus on the music.

Set Goals and Organize
During your practice session you want to practice efficiently. It’s important before even beginning to practice to have some goals for your practice session. In fact, it’s good to set goals over longer periods of time as well. Barry Green, author of The Inner Game of Music, suggests keeping a notebook of practice goals to help maximize your efforts. Write down long term goals (what you’d like to accomplish in 5-10 years), medium term goals (what you want to accomplish in the 1-5 years), short term goals (what do you want to accomplish this year).

If you can’t answer some of those questions you may want to give this some concentrated thought. Once you have an idea of where you are headed, you plot daily and weekly goals that will lead to the longer term goals. Writing down what you want to practice also has the added benefit in that they are more likely to get accomplished.

Keep track of what you want to accomplish during the week and each step you take in your practice sessions to get there. You will notice that often times we spend a great deal of effort on the same things that we can already do fairly well, but neglect to work on other materials. Use your notebook as a way of organizing your practice sessions efficiently. If you miss materials one day be sure to make note of that in your notebook and you will remember to spend time on those materials later in the week.

If you know that you have a certain amount of time to practice in a day you should structure that time to hit a little bit of everything, but emphasize materials that you or your teacher have chosen as important goals for this time period. For example, you could spend 1/3 of your time practicing fundamentals and routine work, 1/3 of your time on solo repertoire, technical studies, and other lesson material, and 1/3 of your time on materials for ensembles, sight reading, or other important topics related to playing music.

What to Practice
You can break down the types of things to practice into three different categories:

  1. Materials you can already play well
  2. Materials you can almost play well
  3. Materials you cannot play well

The bulk of your practice time should be spent on #2 because the type of effort involved in working on materials just beyond your ability is what is usually most effective. You should also spend some time on the other two categories as well. Working on things that we already play well helps to reinforce good habits as well as give us a mental boost if we feel frustrated. Spending time on materials you cannot play well can help us see how close to our goals we are, encourage us to work harder, and perhaps even surprise ourselves as to how well we can actually play.

Be sure to alter your practice materials accordingly. If an etude you have been assigned for a lesson is too hard, simplify some of it or break it down into smaller sections to make it easier. If other assignments are too easy, transpose them to more challenging keys or change other aspects of the music so that you must make a greater effort.

Break Down Challenging Passages
Everyone is faced with musical passages that are too challenging to play correctly. By isolating aspects of that passage that we struggle with we can work out the problems individually so that a phrase that was previously unplayable can become easy.

Figure out what makes that passage difficult for you, then remove that aspect. For example, if the tempo is too fast for you to play the phrase accurately play it slowly or even without any tempo at all. Or perhaps the range of the example is too high or low for your to play comfortably. In this case you can work out the sound by changing the octave you play it in. Once you feel comfortable on the phrase remove an aspect you know you can play and add back the difficult one. Eventually you will be able to incorporate both into the passage and feel comfortable.

For phrases that are just too awkward to play you can try this trick. Start at the end of the passage, instead of the beginning, and play just the last couple of notes or so. Loop that little bit over and over until it feels comfortable, then add the previous note. Keep working by adding one or two notes until you feel like you can play the entire passage. Working backwards can often be more effective than doing the same thing from the beginning of the phrase because it forces you to think about the phrase differently and changes your perception of the passage.

Music is an aural art form.  It’s not clear who first said this (my best guess is Laurie Anderson), but it’s true that, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Music notation and written and spoken words can only approximate what music sounds like. You cannot develop a good tone without knowing what a good tone sounds like and you cannot learn how to play a piece stylistically correct without hearing how that sounds. Time spent listening to music will always benefit the time spent practicing.

Listen to ALL kinds of music, but focus on music that includes your particular instrument. Avoid too much pop music! While popular music can be fun and even artistic, most is composed, performed, and recorded with a formula dictated by the recording industry for the purposes of making money. The true artist who stretches the boundaries of art music rarely, if ever, becomes popular because his or her music takes time to understand and appreciate. Pop music is designed to be easy to understand so that it sells, not broaden the artist’s and listener’s horizons.

Tape Yourself
While we are actually in the process of making music we have a tendency to not hear everything we’re playing. Also, when you are the one playing the music your ears aren’t in the optimal spot for really hearing what the music sounds like. If you tape your practice sessions you can often times gain insight into what is sounding good and what needs more work that you wouldn’t receive just from practicing. You don’t need an expensive tape recorder. Even if the sound quality is less than ideal the tape will not lie about things like intonation, tempo, wrong notes, and incorrect rhythms.

Some people like to tape themselves every day. For other people once every week or so is enough. If you find that listening to yourself on tape is frustrating, tape yourself less frequently. We can often be our own harshest critics, so don’t beat yourself up.

Have Fun

If you don’t enjoy music enough to want to practice, rehearse, and perform, then you should reevaluate why you are studying it. Playing music takes a lot of concentrated effort over the long term. If you don’t enjoy this effort, then your progress will be limited.

Try to keep each practice session fun. This can be difficult, because often we are assigned materials we don’t find interesting. If you are stuck working on a piece of music you just don’t enjoy twist something around to make it enjoyable. For example, practice a concerto with swung eighth notes or along with a drum machine playing a rock groove. Put a recording of the piece on and play along with it. Then go back to practicing it in the “correct” manner and you might find it more interesting.

Be sure to reward yourself for getting through unenjoyable materials by always ending up a practice session with something you find fun to play.

Have Non-Musical Hobbies
You will need to take time away from music to allow yourself to come back refreshed. Find something you enjoy doing that isn’t related to music and have fun doing it. When you come back to music, you will appreciate what you missed that much more.

Healthy hobbies, like running, yoga, dancing, reading, and playing chess or whatever you enjoy are great ways to take your mind off of music. Other more indulgent hobbies, like video games, chocolate, drinking coffee, and watching TV, are also good to help you “charge your batteries up” for your next practice session.  Just don’t get too distracted by your hobbies that you don’t spend the time you need on practice.

Find What Works For You
Lastly, be sure to evaluate your efforts and results in a personal manner. Every individual has a unique way of learning, developing, and retaining musical information. Even the same musician can change how he or she learns best in a matter of days or even hours. If something just isn’t working for you, change it. Try coming back to those materials or that manner of practicing later and see if works better. Over time you will be able to better judge how well you effort is being spent and become one of the experience musicians who says, “I can get more results from less time.”

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