Practice Tips for Musicians

photo of a practice setup: double bass, sheet music, and tuner

One of the best ways to improve yourself as a musician is to make the time you spend in the practice room as efficient as possible. Often I’ll see students get frustrated with their progress because they spend time practicing and don’t feel like they are seeing any progress. The root cause isn’t a lack of inherent talent; rather it is almost always due to inefficient practice habits.

General tips

Here are some ideas to help you maximize the efficiency of your practice time:

  1. Set a schedule, and stick to it. Set a time for yourself to practice. Optimally, this would be the same time every day, but schedule it for time that works best for you. Try to get at least some practice time in daily – don’t just take a zero.
  2. Practice the hard parts. It cannot be emphasized enough that you should not simply start at the beginning of a piece, play until you make a mistake, and then start over again at the beginning. Because you know what’s going to happen, right? Exactly: You get to the same exact spot where you made the mistake, and then you make the same mistake again, and you instinctively go right back to the beginning. There’s a time and place for playing from the beginning, but that time is not now. Whenever you make a mistake, immediately stop what you are doing, pick up a pencil, and mark the spot. Play just that measure to figure out what is going on. If it is a fingering problem, try a few different options. If it is a shift between two notes or positions, then fix just the shift first. Then back up a measure or two earlier, and see if you can glide into the problem spot now. Better? Good!, Not better? Fix it!
  3. Mark your problem spots. I just mentioned this in the above tip, but it bears repeating: Put markings in your score where you need to practice. During rehearsals or practice sessions, I’ll often just put a little star next to the spot that needs work. When I get focused on that problem spot, I might grab a couple of Post-It notes and use them as blinders on my sheet music so I’m only looking at the spot I need to practice.
  4. Use a metronome. The metronome is one of the greatest inventions in the history of human civilization. Use it. Here’s how:
    1. Identify the spot that needs practice. Initially this should be a short segment – one or two measures in most cases.
    2. Figure out a tempo where you can play the segment perfectly. The notes should be articulated clearly and in perfect time subdivisions, never early, never late. The note is perfectly in tune. The bow is moving in the proper directions, and is placed on the string in a way that produces the sound you’re looking for. And so on. Don’t make any compromises with your slowest tempo. If you can’t play it perfectly, slow the metronme down even further. 40 beats per minute (BPM) or even slower is not an uncommon starting point for me.
      • Pro tip: For string players busy with staccato segments that might seem impossibly fast , practice legato first. Then practice with extremely short bow strokes. Maintain contact with the bow on the string. As you speed up, the short bow strokes will seem to lift and provide the staccato sound you’re looking for.
    3. Figure out your slowest tempo and your target tempo.
    4. Now think about how many times you should repeat this section with the metronome speed incremented. Plan on at least 5 increments of the metronome. 20 is probably a good upper limit in most cases.
    5. Write down a metronome plan for the segment. If your starting tempo is 50 BPM, and your target tempo is 130 BPM, and you want to practice your segment 10 times, then write down something like this: 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, 100, 110, 120, 130, 140. Note: Add one increment over your target tempo. That way when you play the piece at the target tempo, it’ll seem that much easier.
    6. Practice the segment at the slowest tempo (e.g. 50). Resist the urge to play past the segment you’ve indicated – this is inefficient. Stick to the plan. Make sure you’re doing everything as perfectly as possible at the slow tempo. Be self-critical, and honest with yourself.
    7. Now move the metronome to your next inrement (e.g. 60). Practice the thing.
    8. Repeat this routine until you get to your target tempo. Note: If you can’t play perfectly at some higher tempo along the way, stop here. Examine what is holding you up, and see if you can fix it. If it is still unplayable at the higher tempo, practice at the fastest tempo you’re comfortable with for the number of times you intended (e.g. 10) and then try again the next day.
  5. Use a tuner. Tune your instrument before you begin to practice. Spot check your intonation when you’re practicing. I like the Tunable app for Android and iOS, because it has both a tuner with great visualization and a built-in metronome in one app. I keep an old phone mounted onto my music stand that basically serves this one purpose, to run Tunable.
  6. Have a practice space. This might be a corner of your room where your music stand, instrument, metronome, pencil, and other war materiel are all located and readily available. Or have everything packed properly so that when you have to escort yourself to your practice location, everything is available and handy.
  7. Remove distractions. Put your phone on silent mode. Resist the urge to respond whatever social media platform is nagging you. Print out a picture of Gandalf saying “YOU SHALL NOT PASS” in Impact font and tape it to your practice room door if you have to. Everything other activity is useless right now – focus, practice.
  8. Practice progressively. If a segment of 10 notes is giving you a lot of trouble, then start with just the first note. Then the first two notes. Then three notes. And so on. Work out the tone, the shifts, and the articulations along the way.
  9. Use healthy technique. If you wind up injuring yourself, that’ll curtail your practice goals right then and there. Practice with healthy technique habits: Use good posture, focus on ergonomic hand positions, and avoid excessive tension. Bad technique can lead to joint and back aches, tendonitis, and carpal tunnel syndrome. Good technique will allow you to practice more, to play longer in life, and to achieve greater success with your musical goals.
  10. Play with feeling. For your musicality to become truly inspired, play with all the emotion and soul that you can muster. Don’t just settle for ‘techncially correct’. Make it soulful, moving, and human.

The Practice Algorithm™

The Practice Algorithm is a fundamental technique that many musicians use to optimize their approach to learning a piece of music. This algorithm is particularly effective for those notoriously difficult passages.

The Practice Algorithm is the order of what you focus on in sequence as you practice a segment of music – that’s it. Here’s the order of precedence for what you should focus on:

  1. Intonation: are you playing the right notes, and are the notes in tune? For fixed-intonation instruments such as piano, harp, or guitar – is your instrument in tune?
  2. Rhythm: Are you playing the correct rhythm? Does it feel right?
  3. Articulation: Are the notes to be played staccatto, detaché, tenuto, etc.?
  4. Sound: How is your sound quality? Do you like the sound of that note you’re playing, or could it be improved? Are you using the right amount of bounce in the bow, breath control, finger weight, etc.?
  5. Tempo: Now that you have all of the above exactly the way you like it, what’s the target tempo? How will you work up to that tempo? (Hint: It has something to do with a metronome.)

The Practice Algorithm should drive all active practice session efforts.

About Me

Hello, my name is Joe Lewis. Since 2014, I’ve been working at Google as a technical writer. I have worked as a developer, researcher, and in leadership roles in the energy, security, identity, privacy, and analytics realms. I wrote a few books. I often tinker around on GitHub.

I am also a professional double bassist, actively teaching this instrument on weekends and performing with orchestras as time permits. I like to travel, exercise, and am a mountain bike enthusiast.

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