A Guide to Great Home Music Practice
Teachers cannot make you a better musician; they can only tell you how to improve. The actual improvement, you have to do yourself, and mostly on your own time. Lesson time is for you to show your teacher your progress and get instruction on how to improve. Group rehearsal times (band, orchestra, choir) are mainly for the improvement of the group and for practicing playing together. Performances (individual or group) are for letting everyone enjoy the progress you have made. None of these times are ideal for actually making progress, so even if you show up for every lesson, rehearsal, and performance, you will have no time to improve! Individual music practice is absolutely necessary if you want to become a better musician.
Your teacher should give you guidelines on how often and how long to practice as well as what to practice. If you do not have a private teacher or if the guidelines are vague, you will find some useful tips here. It is important not just to practice, but to practice well. You can practice daily and still make very slow progress if you are not practicing well. To make the most progress with the least effort, your individual practice time should include the following:
1. Set Goals
What are your long-term goals as a musician? Knowing what you want to do will help you decide what you need to work on and help you set your medium- and short-term goals. For example, what do you need to do be able to do to make first chair or to start your own rock band? Improve your range, your reading ability, your tone quality, your tuning, your bowing or fingering technique? What method books would be most helpful? What less-difficult pieces will prepare you to play the pieces you can’t play yet? If it’s difficult for you to decide what you need to work on, ask your teacher, your director, or another musician you respect for advice.
Your medium-term goals, plus any performances or lessons coming up soon, will determine your goals for each practice session. You must be prepared for lessons, rehearsals, and concerts; and your director and teacher have chosen materials that will help you become a better musician. If you do not have any lesson materials to work on, and your ensemble music is easy for you, then find materials that challenge you in the areas that you need to be challenged. Stay focused on what you want to accomplish right now, today, and on how that will help you get where you want to be.
2. Set Practice Times
Your teacher or director should tell you how often and how long your individual practice times should be. If not, keep in mind two general rules: practicing often is more important than having lengthy practices, and the better you are, the more you have to practice to improve.
Practicing every day is ideal. Skipping a day occasionally won’t hurt, and may even be necessary to rest your muscles and keep you fresh and excited about playing. However, skipping a day on a regular basis is not conducive to making progress. If you are pressed for time, just doing your warm-ups or cool-downs is better than skipping a day.
Young musicians and other beginners do not need long practices to make progress, while a sixteen-year-old pianist who has been playing for more than ten years may need to practice more than an hour a day to make further progress. Professionals practice several hours a day.
3. Warm Up
Playing a musical instrument is a physical activity and warming up is just as important to the musician as it is to the athlete. Warm-ups may feel like a waste of time, but you can turn them into some of the most productive minutes of your practice. Consider doing scales as warm-ups. If you find this boring, do the hard ones (how are your D flat major and C sharp melodic minor scales?), or do jazz scales. Want to have a great practice? When you’re working on the hard stuff, it can be difficult to remember to play with your best tone quality and musicianship. It’s a lot easier on the easy stuff. Sure it’s only scales, arpeggios, or long tones, but try playing them with the best tone quality, best technique, and best musicality you have. This will make warming up a little more interesting, but the big payoff comes later; you will play with a better tone quality and musicianship later in your practice.
4. Work on It
Once you are warmed up, get out the hard stuff and work on it. Some tips for improving as fast as possible:
- Don’t practice it wrong! Don’t play wrong notes, leave notes out, or play wrong rhythms. This just teaches you to play it wrong. If it’s too difficult to play right, slow it down enough that you can play all the notes in rhythm, correctly, no matter how slow this is. When you can play it correctly slowly, start speeding it up, but never practice it at a speed that you can’t handle.
- Don’t just play through your music. Skip the easy parts; they’re easy! Find the hard parts, slow them down, and practice them until you can play them right at the right tempo.
- If there’s something you just can’t play at all (a high note, for example), make it part of your warm-up. Find an exercise that makes it easier to get to that note (or to double-tongue, or to do that giant slur) and do it every day the easy way. Eventually it will start showing up in the harder music, too.
5. Cool Down
While you were practicing the hard parts of your music, you may have become tense or frustrated, or forgotten to play musically or with good tone quality or technique. End your practice time by playing or singing something you like that is easy for you. Relax and “perform” it for yourself, playing with your very best technique and musicianship. During this part of your practices, develop a “repertoire” of music that you feel very comfortable and confident playing or singing. Then you’ll always have something ready if people ask for a performance.
What progress did you make on the difficult stuff during this session? What should you work on in your next practice time? When you are playing something that is difficult for you, you are so involved that it is difficult to listen objectively, too. But, do you believe a particular piece is ready for your next rehearsal or lesson? You’ll get more feedback on it then. If not, consider recording yourself, at least occasionally, so that you get a chance to sit back and listen to yourself. Don’t be hypercritical, but be objective: this is good, that is what needs work. Again, if a teacher is not available to help, play whenever possible for your director or other musicians and listen for useful feedback.
Adapted from an article by Catherine Schmidt-Jones, https://cnx.org/content/m11883/latest/