Practice Strategies

“What you want to play shimmers ungraspable in the air, or in the hands of others. I think this is when your story as a musician begins. Playing, you’ve begun to practice. Now you’ll never play the way you wish you could. Now one lifetime is not enough. You’ll never be finished practicing.”
Practicing by Glenn Kurtz

“Practicing is the search for ever greater joy in movement and expression.”
Violinist Yehudi Menuhin, quoted in Practicing by Glenn Kurtz

Practicing is a musician’s best investment. No matter how much (or how little) inborn talent a person has, practice is the way to develop that talent and focused practice will help you use your time to your best advantage. Even professional musicians often struggle with making their practice time work for them. As a music student, your time spent in focused practice is the best way to get the most out of your lessons. In general, what you want to do is listen and listen and listen to the music you want to play, seeking out the parts that really speak to you. Then chase those sounds. Make the music deep and loud and clear in your head and play it that way. Then do it again and again and again and again until the music is so much a part of you that you that bits of yourself go into the music. For inspiration, check out this blog post by my friend Max Godfrey about “singing in” work songs.

How Much Time?
However much time it takes you to achieve your practice goals for the week, plus as much more as you can spare – the more you play, the faster you improve! Small children and new players should practice for shorter periods of time or frequent breaks (you can practice more than once a day) to allow for shorter attention spans and getting their muscles used to the physical demands of playing. No one should play for more than 50 minutes without taking at least a short break to stretch. Set a task (i.e. learn the first section or measure) for your practice period, and make it realistic. You can always do more than your goal!

However, as Hal Galper says in this great video, if you get bored, work on something else for a while. Once you’re bored you’re not going to be learning anything more on that front.

Using the Time Wisely
Any time spent playing, listening deeply, watching another player, or working on general musicianship skills is time well-spent. However, focused practice time yields the highest results:

  • Warm up without and then with your instrument to avoid injury.
  • Give yourself permission to make mistakes. Mistakes where you don’t want them can be corrected, but mistakes are also avenues to discover new ways to express yourself. The more I free myself to make mistakes, the more I discover new variations I like. When I let go of the need to play “flawlessly” I often find myself thinking, “Hey! How did I do that? Can I do it again?”
  • Make achievable weekly goals with your teacher. Set goals for yourself each time you practice, i.e. “I’m going to play the first part of this tune (or first measure!) until I can play all the notes correctly 5 times in a row.” Evaluate your progress during and after each practice session.
  • Sometimes I divide my practice time into 20-minute chunks and work on specific aspects of playing, but usually that ends up feeling stilted after a while. Generally, I just play whatever holds my interest until it doesn’t any more. The best practicing happens when I really get sucked in to a piece or an idea or a sound and lose myself in it and then usually emerge a while later needing a snack and a break and a walk. Musicians sometimes refer to this as “being in the zone”.
  • If getting everything correctly is overwhelming, you can pick one element to focus on. You can also take a smaller chunk and slow way down! Choose whether you are going to focus on notes, tempo, rhythm, bowing, bow hold, tone, intonation, playing the whole piece without stopping, etc. For example, you might play one short section slowly, focusing on playing the correct notes, then playing them in the correct rhythm, then gradually increasing the tempo.
  • Go for correct repetitions. If you are playing over and over incorrectly, make your task easier by making it shorter, slower, etc. Set the goal of playing 3-5 times correctly in a row.
  • Work on one small section, then work on another small section, then work on joining them together. Transitions between sections, or between tunes in a set, are often weak spots unless you specifically practice the transitions. Or, if you are a big-picture kind of person, work “from the outside in” and get the big movements of a tune and then focus in on the details. I recommend always starting with this method, getting the music deep in your head before you try to play it.
  • Take breaks. Stop to stretch and relax your muscles if they are getting stiff or sore, at least every 50 minutes. If you are getting frustrated with your task, take a quick break and play something else or stretch, then come back to your task (or another one).
  • Children get the most out of practice time with parental involvement. Traditional music is a community activity. The best thing is if parents also play or learn an instrument to play with their child. Music is a language and is best learned in a similar way.
  • Getting bored? Practice feeling stale? Re-evaluate your goals. Shake things up by finding a new piece you like, trying to play a piece you know down or up and octave (starting on the same name note, but a different place on the instrument) or in a different key (starting on a different note and picking out the tune by ear). Move your music stand or practice space. Change to a different time of day. Play with a friend. Audio or video record your playing and listen to it (and save that recording to view later to see your progress). Practice a piece you know well with the goal of communicating a specific feeling: joy, anger, jealousy, excitement, sarcasm… get goofy and feel free to go way beyond the bounds of good taste.
  • Continue to give yourself permission to make mistakes.

Taking the Time
It can be hard to create a new habit in your life. Establish an expectation of daily practice and make it happen. My friend Sandy Davis says he commits to at least holding his instrument for 5 minutes every day. Once it is in your hands, it seems foolish not to play. After the first several months, daily practice will tend to become more routine. A practice log can help you keep track of your weekly goals and how you are progressing on them. A practice chart helps you keep track of how often you practice and lets you see trends, from “Wow, I’ve practiced every day for 10 days straight!” to “Hm, I seem to have trouble keeping my practice routine up on weekends.” Establish a regular time of day for practicing. Sometimes morning practice works better, sometimes evening. If you need additional reminders to practice, try one of these strategies:

  • Put your instrument or music someplace where you will see it frequently. If you have adequate temperature and humidity controls, some people leave their instrument out of the case in a safe place – sometimes getting the instrument out is the biggest barrier to practicing.
  • Make a note for yourself, a picture of your instrument, or a piece of music somewhere you will see it frequently: on the fridge, as the background on your computer or phone, in the bathroom, on your desk, or next to your bed.
  • Make a rule for yourself: I will play before I… (check my email, eat dessert, call my friend). I’ve heard that clarinetist Anna Patton puts her clarinet on top of her computer and requires herself to play for 5 minutes before she opens the computer.
  • Listen to someone else. I’ve sometimes set my morning alarm to be my computer playing from my “Tunes to work on” playlist. Some parents report that practicing themselves often gets their kids to play. Others threaten that if their child doesn’t practice, the parent gets to take the lesson instead (better to ok this with your child’s teacher in advance, though for my one family that did this the threat was enough to get the practice to happen)!

Difficult Times to Maintain your Routine
Once your practice routine is up and going, it often becomes second nature – then you go away, or school vacation week hits, or visiting friends/family or holidays turn everything upside down. How can you get through these tricky practice times?

  • Take your instrument with you, if at all possible, when you go away. Commit to at least holding it for 5 minutes each day.
  • If you can’t take your instrument, take sheet music and/or recordings. Set aside at least 5 minutes daily to listen intently, sing along, or move your fingers along to the music. Read through your sheet music, moving your fingers and hearing it internally or singing aloud. For more specifics on mental practice: Mental Practice for Musicians
  • Make special incentives for these tricky times.
  • Make practice special by focusing on things you find fun – playing with others, working on or reviewing your favorite music, etc.
  • Or, take a break and come back ready to be focused.

Additional Resources