Practice Like a Pro

Learn how to practice like a pro! Doing well at anything requires practice. Lots of practice! There are no shortcuts! Practice takes time, lots of time. It can be boring. Practice is not usually fun. But learning how to effectively practice is one of the most important things you can learn as a musician! Let me give you some ideas on how to make the most of your practice time.

Best Tips for Effective Practicing

Plan to Practice

Make a plan to practice. Just as you write tasks, assignments, appointments in your planner, do not forget to include your music practice in your daily plans. If you tell yourself that you will practice when you finish everything else, most likely you will not get to the practicing. Choose the time and place to practice that works best for you. My last year in college, because of the way my class and work schedules worked out, my slotted/assigned piano practice time was from 10 p.m. to midnight. Was it ideal? Probably not, but it worked for me. Fortunately for everyone else, the piano I was using was in a separate building, far away from where anyone was trying to sleep!

Always Take Time to Warm Up

No matter when you decide to practice, always take time to warm up. Proper warm up is SO important! This will help you in so many ways. It will prepare you for the practice session, it will get your muscles involved ready to work, and warming up will help you begin to focus on practicing. Warming up is never a waste of time! Work on long tones for tone quality, pitch control and embouchure endurance. Do slow, and then faster scale patterns. Do some physical stretching to prepare your body for the practice session. Always do warm ups!

Be Intentional

Have a plan for each practice session. What are you hoping to accomplish? Be specific. Don’t just hope to play through the first movement of the sonata without any mistakes. Have a plan. “I am going to work on the correct dynamics of the first sonata movement. I think I am missing some crescendos.” The more specific your plan is, the better you will be able to accomplish your goals.

Be Efficient

Your practice time is limited. Use it efficiently! Don’t let your mind wander while you are trying to practice. You won’t know whether you played something correctly or not! Stay focused. Concentrate on what you are playing and how you are playing it. Listen while you play. Do you like what you hear? Why not? What can you do to make it better? Be your own critic and solve the problems you hear. I used to have a teacher who would tell me (repeatedly!) that if my mind was not engaged with what I was playing, I was wasting my time. Who has time to waste in the practice room?

Isolate the Problems

The purpose of practicing is to solve problems. Don’t spend all your time playing a piece from beginning to end repeatedly. Most likely, you can play most of the piece well. Find out where you are having problems, mark them, and focus on correcting the specific problems. Let’s say that in measure 22 you have problems playing an arpeggio section. Don’t play through measure 23 and then go back to the beginning. Take just measure 22 (where the problem is) and work on solving the problem. Play it through very slowly, but correctly. Do it several times that way, then take it just a tiny bit faster. Gradually increase the tempo until you can play it correctly several times at the correct speed. Then play measures 21-23. Does the problem section sound better? Then try playing measures 17-25. When you can do that correctly (several times), then you can think about going back to the beginning of the piece. Don’t waste your time repeatedly playing what you can already play well, focus on the problem parts!

Mark Your Music

There is no rule against marking your music. Smart musicians will mark their music to help them remember what to do, or what not to do. Markings can point out sections that need more practice, accidentals you miss too often, key changes, time signature changes, etc. You may not want to mark all this on your original copy of the music. (For competitions or auditions this would not be a good plan!) Make a copy of the music and mark all over it. Use different colors, use erasable highlighters. Use colored pencils. Whatever works for you. As you are playing through a piece, mark the problem spots so you know what needs special attention. (And so you won’t forget where the problem areas are!) Markings will draw your attention to certain things that you might forget about. You can mark where the melody line is. Mark your dynamic changes. Highlight where different voices enter. (Bach fugues?) Marking your music is a tool to make you a better musician.

Practice Slowly

I had a professor tell me once (or more than once!) that if I could not play the piece/passage correctly slowly, I would never be able to play it correctly up to tempo. He was right. When we play everything up to tempo all the time we learn to sort of gloss over the problem and hope no one notices. When we play through the passage slowly, we hear all the mistakes and unevenness that need to be corrected. So learn to practice slowly, find the problems, solve them, then work your way gradually back to the correct tempo. Slow practice is SO important!!!

Practice until You Cannot Play the Piece Incorrectly

When we practice, we are training muscles to respond correctly so the music is played correctly. We need to practice until our muscles automatically know what to do next – without conscious thought being involved. Our fingers/hands need to know what to do so our mind can focus on making the music flow from the finger/hand response. And that requires much practice! Concentrated, focused practice. Practice until the passage is played correctly every time, not just once in a while. Play a game with yourself – commit to practicing a section until you can play it correctly ten times in a row. If you mess up on time #8 then you have to start over at #1 again. If it takes an hour to accomplish that challenge, then take an hour. But when you finish, you will be able to say that you really accomplished something in that practice session.

Strategies for Solving Problems

Listen to Find the Problems

You must listen while you play in order to find the sections that need extra attention. You can not put your brain in neutral and just mindlessly play through a piece and expect to improve. You must focus and listen. Find where the problems are. Train your mind to listen critically to find things that need attention. Don’t rely on your teacher to find all your problems for you. Be your own critic. It might help to occasionally record yourself, then follow your music while listening to the recording. Mark all the things you hear that are not correct, or that don’t sound quite right to you. Then you know what to go back and work on.

Mark the Problem

One you listen and find a problem passage, mark it! Most likely you will not remember where every problem section is, and then you will waste time trying to find it again. Mark your music when you hear something wrong so you will remember what you need to come back to.

Analyze What is Wrong or What is Causing the Problem

When you begin to work on a problem passage, first, think about what is wrong with it. Are you playing wrong notes? Missing an accidental? Is the rhythm wrong? Is the passage uneven? Are the dynamics wrong? Before you start to practice the passage, you need to know what you are trying to correct.

Isolate

Isolate the problem. Don’t work on two pages if the problem area is only two measures long. Concentrate on solving the problem in just those two measures. When you are confident you can repeatedly play those two measures correctly, then work those two measures back into the context of the piece. Start two measures before the problem and play for a couple measures after the problem. When you can do that well and up to tempo, add in a few more measures.

Practice to Solve the Problem

Remember your focus – what are you trying to correct? Solve the problem! Maybe you need to experiment with different fingering to make the passage easier to play. Maybe you need to mark that missed accidental in some bright color so you can’t possibly miss it again! Keep your mind focused on what you are trying to accomplish. Don’t give up and quit before you finish.

Learn how to practice efficiently and effectively! This is probably one of the most important things you can learn as a musician. The sooner you learn effective practice techniques, the sooner you will become a better musician! So go out and Practice Like a Pro!

Happy Practicing!

This link will give you some additional ideas to help your child practice.

And if your child does not want to practice, here are some ideas that might help.

When Your Child Doesn’t Want to Practice…

What do you do when your child doesn’t want to practice? Do you have to fight this battle every single day? Is it worth it? They were so excited about learning to play piano, or horn, or violin – what happened? What have I done wrong? Almost every music mom deals with this at some point. So, what’s to do?

When your child doesn’t want to practice – Find out why!

Talk. Communicate. Listen. Something has changed. Find out what it is. Kids have a long list of reasons for not wanting to practice. I’m sure you can identify with at least some of these.

  • The music is too hard.
  • I don’t understand what I’m supposed to do.
  • I already learned that.
  • My instrument doesn’t work right.
  • It hurts – I am in pain when I practice.
  • Something happened at my lesson.
  • The other kids make fun of me.
  • I don’t have any time to practice.
  • I don’t have any place to practice.
  • This stuff is boring, or too easy.

When your child doesn’t want to practice – Solve the problem! (If possible!)

It they say that the music is too hard, or too boring, or too easy, talk to the teacher. See if there is justification for what your child says. Does your teacher see this as a possible problem? Is the teacher willing to adjust, give suggestions, help you out?

If your child says that she doesn’t understand what she is supposed to do, help her figure it out. Maybe the teacher’s notes will make more sense to you. Maybe a quick call, email, or text to the teacher will help you sort through the confusion. Make an effort to help your child.

Your child says they have no time, or no space to practice. Or that everywhere is too loud to practice. Could that be true? If you want him to practice you must provide the opportunity. Is he over-scheduled? Maybe find something to cut out. Or teach him to manage his time better.

Does he have a quiet place with enough open space to practice? I know most of us don’t have space for a dedicated music room, but your child needs an open space and a quiet place to do his practicing.

What about pain? Sometimes practicing an instrument will cause pain. We contort our bodies into unnatural positions to play certain instruments – that can definitely cause pain. And that must be dealt with!

When your child doesn’t want to practice – Check out the instrument.

My instrument doesn’t work right – maybe there is truth to that. Maybe a pad is loose, or a key is stuck. Perhaps some valve oil or a cleaning could help. Is there a problem with the chin rest or shoulder pad? Who knows, maybe someone’s sock got stuck in the baritone. My daughter had a student get popcorn in their violin! Look at the instrument to see if there is an obvious problem.

See if your child can be more specific about the issue. Then, ask the teacher, or band director, or orchestra director. Do they have any insight? Can they recommend a repair shop? Any practicing will go better if the instrument works correctly.

Be sure the instrument is the correct size for your child.  Is she holding the instrument correctly? Be certain there are no other physical conditions responsible for the pain. Talk to your teacher for ideas and recommendations. Check out posture.

For string players, it could be as “simple” as changing to a different shoulder rest. (I know – nothing is simple!) Don’t just dismiss comments about pain – get them checked out. I plan to do an entire post about this in the future.

When your child doesn’t want to practice – Don’t ignore the possibility of bullying or other inappropriate behavior.

Perhaps the issue is that other kids are making fun of your child because they play the violin instead of football. Or piano instead of soccer. Encourage your child. Point out the positives of playing their instrument. At least playing piano won’t earn them a concussion!

On a more serious note – a group called Time for Three has a great video about musicians and bullying. Check it out here: Time for Three

Did something happen at a lesson to discourage her from practicing? Was it an issue with the teacher? Or another student? This is too important to ignore. Talk, listen, find out what happened. Then, take appropriate action.

When your child doesn’t want to practice – Quitting should never be the first option!

Don’t take the easy way out and let them quit just because they complain. What are you teaching them? Would you let them quit after the first soccer practice if they complained about how hard it was? Music is no different! Learning to play an instrument takes hard work – years of hard work. But doing anything well takes lots of hard work. Teach them to overcome problems. Help them learn to persevere. Work with them to get beyond the boredom or the difficult times.

Almost every music student will have a time when he/she hates to practice. But that’s okay – encourage them to keep going. One of my sons used to complain all the time about practicing his cello. And he was getting good at his cello. He didn’t mind playing. I finally figured out the problem – instead of a hard case he had a bag for his cello, and it was too hard for him to take the cello out of the bag and put it back in the bag when he finished practicing. When we switched to a hard cello case – problem solved. Of course, there were days after that when he griped about practicing, but it wasn’t the big issue that it had been.

Talk. Communicate. Listen. Work on solving the real problem.

My Child Does Not Want to Practice!
My Child Does Not Want to Practice!

My child doesn't want to practice!
My child doesn’t want to practice!