How to Practice (for advanced students)

Is there a right or wrong way to practice? Is one way better than the other? Is there a certain method that everyone should use to practice?

There is no correct answer to these questions, but there is one thing to keep in mind: there are ways of practicing that are more efficient than others. Students need to be shown how to practice well!

Many music teachers tell their students to practice every day, but they don’t take the time during lessons to teach their students how to practice. If a student doesn’t know how to practice well and cannot make the most of their practice time, they can become frustrated and lose interest in music easily. They can spend a lot of time practicing but end up with few results. All students, especially beginners, greatly benefit from being shown how to practice. Furthermore, because every student is different, each student will need to customize their practice routine and learn what works best for themselves. In the end, the student needs to figure out how to practice the best for themselves, but not without the help of their teacher.

Teachers should show their students how to practice efficiently and effectively.

This guide lays out the steps you need to take in order to have an effective practice routine.

Get Organized

Before you even pick up your instrument or drum sticks, you should think about a few things. What pieces will you practice today? What pieces do you need to have prepared for your next lesson? How much time will you spend practicing today and how will you divide your practice time to practice all of your different pieces of music?

Hopefully, your music teacher has given you a clear assignment for your next lesson and has laid out expectations for you. With this in mind, you should form two practice plans: one for the day and one for the week. Decide how much time a day you think you will need to practice and try and maintain a consistent schedule for the week. For your daily practice, set aside a dedicated amount of time for yourself to do nothing but practice. Don’t let yourself get distracted! For example, if you have three pieces you need to work on, try taking one hour and practice every piece for 20 minutes each. Or, you can break your practice time up and practice each piece for 20 minutes at different times during the day.

The amount of time you need to practice varies with many things such as skill level, time commitment, instrument availability, etc. Some people need to have a large block of uninterrupted practice time to practice efficiently; others can break their practice time up into smaller chunks and practice at different times throughout the day. Do what works best for you! But remember, it is better to practice for a little bit everyday than it is to practice a lot for just one day. Consistency is the key. You will get better at a snare drum roll if you practice it for ten minutes every day for a week rather than one hour just one day a week.

Set Goals

Now that you have a general idea of what you need to practice and how much time you have, you should set some specific, short-term goals for your daily practice session. Saying to yourself “I’m going to learn this piece” is a goal, but it’s not a very specific goal and it won’t help you practice efficiently. When you think about what needs to be prepared for your next lesson or even the eventual performance, you need to think about the steps you need to take to be able to play a piece well.

Playing a piece well means playing it at tempo without stopping, playing the notes correctly, paying attention to all of the dynamics, keeping solid time, playing expressively, etc. Can you do this? If not, then you need to decide what you need to do to accomplish this.

If you’re starting to learn a brand new piece, I would recommend that you try and play through the piece all the way through one time. You should run through the piece to see which sections are easy, which sections are hard, what rhythms are confusing to you, and what passages give you the most difficulty. If you can play the first part of a piece almost perfectly but have a hard time playing the middle part, you should dedicate most of your practice time to practicing the middle part. Once you’ve established which parts you need to work the most on, you need to decide how to actually practice the difficult section. A good goal to say to yourself would be “By the end of this practice session, I’m going to play the middle section of this piece with the metronome at 60 bpm, all the way through without stopping”. This is a good goal because it’s something you can accomplish in just one practice session, it’s realistic, and it’s efficient and effective.

After you reach this goal at the end of your practice session, then you can form a new goal and start thinking about your long term goal. Let’s say you’ve played the hard middle section of you piece at 60 bpm without stopping. Now you can say to yourself “Tomorrow, I’m going to play the middle section of this piece at 70 bpm without stopping and I will play all of the marked dynamics. In one week, I will play the entire piece at the given tempo without stopping and I will play all of the phrasings and dynamics.” If you set a week-long goal with a strategy of how to reach that goal through short term goals, your practice time will be spent efficiently and effectively.

Use a Metronome to Reach Your Threshold

Use a metronome when you practice at least 75% time, if not more!!! A metronome is one of the most useful tools you have as a musician. It hones your time keeping skills and forces you to try and play on a high level. It keeps you “honest”.

When you are learning a new piece or a new technique, you will undoubtedly reach your “threshold” in a short time. That is, you will reach a point where you can’t play past a certain speed without making mistakes. Using a metronome is essential to reaching a new threshold. For example, if you are learning a piece that has a performance tempo of 120 bpm but you can only play it perfectly at 70 bpm, using a metronome will allow you to work methodically towards a new threshold. Practice your piece at 70 bpm until you can play it perfectly four times in a row, then move the metronome level to 73 bpm. If you can do it four times in a row at 73 bpm with no mistakes, then move it up to 76 bpm.

This style of practice may seem painstakingly slow, but eventually you will reach 120 bpm and be able to play at tempo with no mistakes. And, because you will have played your piece many times in a row correctly, memorizing the piece will be easier and the “muscle memory” in your hands will allow your body to seemingly play the piece without you needing to think.

Practice Performing

Playing a piece in a practice room or your home is a lot different than performing in front of an audience or your music teacher. You probably feel comfortable playing in the space you practice in, but what if you were removed from that place and had to perform in a different space in front of people? You might experience what’s known as stage fright.

Stage fright, also known as performance anxiety, is the feeling of nervousness you experience when you perform for an audience. It can cause you to make mistakes and lose your concentration. Every musician experiences stage fright or lack of confidence at some point in their lives. Stage fright or performance anxiety is something that can be overcome and defeated by many different methods and techniques, but the most important thing in feeling comfortable as a performer is to practice performing.

How do you practice performing?

Let’s say that when you’re preparing for your weekly lessons, you play whatever piece you’re working on almost perfectly every time when you’re at home. But then, when it comes time for your lesson, you usually make many more mistakes than usual and sometimes even choke and have memory slips when you’re in front of your teacher. You were able to play so well at home on your own instrument; why do you seem to fall apart when you play for your teacher at your lessons?

The reason is probably because you’re not used to performing in front of people yet. One of the solutions to this is to play for at least one person a couple of days before you need to perform. If you were to ask one of your parents or siblings to listen to you play a song that you’ll be playing for your teacher at your next lesson, you’ve just created an opportunity to see how you’ll perform under pressure. After playing for someone, you can analyze how you performed for them and you can work on any mistakes or memorization issues you encountered. It will also help you get used to playing in front of people. Doing this kind of preparation for performances will help you become more confident as a performer and will increase the likelihood of performing at a high level.

Record Yourself

In addition to performing in front of people during your practice time, recording yourself is an invaluable method that will increase your efficiency as you practice and help you become a better performer. Just as you will play differently when you perform in front of someone, you will play differently when you record yourself. When you record yourself playing a piece, you will feel pressure and perhaps a little bit of stage fright. The feeling of recording yourself isn’t the same as when you perform for a live audience, but it is very similar, which makes it a practical method for preparing for performances.

In addition to simulating the feeling of performing for someone, recording yourself is a great way to study how you play. You can listen to your tempo, dynamics, overall tone, and other aspects of your playing by recording yourself. You don’t always hear the same thing when you perform as you do when you listen, so recording yourself is a great way to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of your practice time.

All of these guidelines are useful and are things many professional musicians do when they practice. However, every individual learns music differently, so it is important that you experiment and chose methods that work best for your style of learning. And most importantly, music should always be fun and enjoyable, even when you’re practicing!