I don’t know what to practice! How many times have you heard this phrase recently? Or maybe you are the one guilty of saying this. I get it – if you or your child hasn’t had a lesson in a while, you feel like you are sick of practicing everything your teacher assigned you. Here are some ideas for what your child can practice when he doesn’t know what to practice.
First and foremost – practice scales! I can’t emphasize this enough – practice scales! All you keyboard players, practice your scales hands apart and hands together. Make sure you use the correct fingering. Play scales in contrary motion and parallel motion. Other instrumentalists, you need to practice scales also! If you are going to continue in music, you must know your scales – major, minor (all three kinds!), chromatic scales. Scales in every key!
Practice music you already learned, music from the past. How can you play it better? What can you do to make it more expressive and more musical? Learn to play something from memory. Go back and work on those tricky passages again to see if you can make them better, smoother, cleaner. Review pieces you played last month, or last year.
Try learning some new music on your own. Maybe you have a piece that you always wanted to learn but never got to it in lessons. Have you found an arrangement of your favorite song that you want to learn? Go for it! Approach this new piece the same way you would start new music from your teacher. Be sure to check the key signature, time signature, accidentals, tricky rhythms. Learn something new just for fun.
Do you know what an arpeggio is? Think of a chord but played just one note at a time. That’s the basic idea of an arpeggio. You find arpeggios all over your music, so practicing them in advance will give you a head start on future music. Keyboardists, you need to be sure you practice arpeggios with correct fingering!
Compose Some Music
Try composing some original music. Wouldn’t your teacher be surprised if you come to your next lesson with some original music to play for her? Think of a little theme or melody, play around with it, add some variety to it – see what you can do! And then, take the challenge further and try to write it out with the correct notes and rhythm. Who knows – you might discover a new passion!
Did I Mention Scales?
Let me reiterate – practice your scales! Scales are foundational to all music! Did you know that most of those long tricky passages you see in more difficult music come from scales? So work on those scales until you no longer need to think how to play them, and you will be ready to face those complicated passages head-on.
OK – Go practice! No more excuses! I’ve just given you lots of ideas of what to practice.
Need some more help or ideas with practicing? Check these posts.
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!
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.
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
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
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
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
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 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!
This link will give you some additional ideas to help your child 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.