How to Learn — Practice Tips

Music teachers will assign exercises and pieces for students to work on between lessons, assuming that both the student and the teacher are on the same page regarding the definition of “practice”.  Even students who have been playing for years may not have a very clear idea of what it means to practice effectively (I know that it took me several years, and I’m still working on the art of practicing!).  With my students, I like to make the distinction between “practice” and “play”.  Both of these elements are vital to a student’s growth, but practice is often avoided (usually inadvertently) in favor of play.  Below are a few tips that may increase the efficacy of your practice regimen.

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Get organized.

Have a clear idea of what it is you are going to tackle in your session.  The best way to prevent your practice session from degenerating into mindless noodling is to have a “to do” list.  Keep a log of the things you are currently working on.  Keep track of the tempos at which you are playing each song/scale/exercise, and use that data to decide whether or not you are ready to burn faster or keep it slow.

Be consistent, don’t cram.

Be consistent in the content of your practice from day to day to allow for gradual development in all of the different concepts you are trying to improve.  This will also ensure that you are regularly touching on all of the concepts you are working on, preventing any one particular exercise from slipping through the cracks.

Practicing regularly for shorter periods over the course of several days will yield better results than practicing for an extended period on one day.  Try to carve out time on a daily basis rather than cramming on the day of the lesson.  It may not seem like much of a practice session, but even 30 minutes per day can make a big difference compared to three and a half hours one day per week.  Of course, longer daily practice sessions are generally better than shorter, but in either case, regularity and consistency are key.

Use a metronome.

As a musician, you will be (if not already) playing with other musicians.  Being able to play in time is a prerequisite for everybody involved to successfully make music and have an enjoyable time.  Practicing with a metronome will help you develop a stronger internal sense of time.  Start with the metronome set to quarter notes (once per beat), then try cutting the tempo in half and having it beat once every two beats.

Advanced players, try this: playing with the metronome only on beat 1 of a measure, or only on beat 4, or only on the “and” of beat 3, etc., or playing in 4/4 with the metronome in an odd meter.  Ted Reed’s Syncopation for the Modern Drummer is one of my favorite books for practicing rhythms with a metronome.

Go slow.

Practice slowly!  You may think that practicing at fast tempos will get you to faster tempos sooner, but you will run into many technical issues (inefficient fingerings, clumsy picking, sloppy time, etc) that could have been avoided by practicing slowly and diligently.  Practicing haphazardly at fast tempos will only yield frantic, sloppy playing (see the next section).

It’s like climbing a mountain.  You could scramble in a straight line up to the summit, but you will wear yourself out (or worse!) before you get there.  The switchbacks may seem like a longer route, but at the end of the day you will have avoided a lot of the pitfalls and frustration and be able to fully enjoy the view.

Practice makes permanent.

You will perform the same way that you practice.  Make sure that you are actively fostering all of the habits that you would like to have when it comes time to exhibit your work in front of an audience.  Good practice habits (e.g. mental and physical relaxation, clean playing, good posture, etc.) will be translated into the same good performance habits.  Be sure to avoid sloppy or mindless practicing, because those are the same things you will bring to the table when it comes performing.

Call your shots.

It is sometimes hard to know whether or not a concept was executed properly.  It has helped me tremendously to outline the exact parameters of whatever it is I am practicing.  If my goal is to practice my major scales, then I would outline the details as well, for example: play each scale up and down in two octaves in eighth notes at 160 bpm, once in each of the twelve keys, cycling through the circle of 4ths.  Now I have outlined exactly what I’m practicing, how I’m going to play it (tempo, subdivision, what keys and in what order). Doing this allows me to immediately recognize whether or nor I executed the piece properly and there is no way to hide under the veil of alleged “artistic license”.  Equally important, it lets me know when I am done with that particular item on my list and I am ready to move on to the next item.

Relax and stay positive.

Try to maintain a state of physical and mental relaxation as you practice.  Relax all of the muscles in your body except those that are critical to playing your instrument.  Try to keep your mind clear of any distractions.  Do not make any value judgements regarding your playing.  Simply acknowledge whether you played something correctly or incorrectly without thinking of “good” or “bad”.  Aim to practice a particular exercise or piece until you can execute it while maintaining a state of total peace.  Kenny Werner’s Effortless Mastery does a good job of outlining a method toward this type of practice.

Make it a ritual.

Not only do I have a practice routine, but I also have a routine for getting into my routine.  This ritual looks different for everybody, but it is still an important part of the practice session.  For me, it means setting up my pedal effects, turning on my amplifier, tuning my guitar, lighting a stick of incense and relaxing my mind and body in preparation for the practice session.  In Zen in the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel’s enlightening account of his time studying archery with Zen masters, he explains that the master painter or master flower-arranger takes the time to himself lay out his brushes, rub his own ink, or untie the bundles of flowers and blossoms, rather than delegate the tasks to a pupil.  Herrigel writes, “He sticks to this traditional custom because he knows from experience that the preparations for working put him simultaneously in the right frame of mind for creating.”  The process of preparing to practice can be enough to put you in the right head space to practice effectively.

Have a successful model.

When I am practicing something unfamiliar, I preface it by playing something similar that I know very well.  For example, if you are practicing your half-diminished arpeggios and they are unfamiliar to you, then practice the major seven or another arpeggio that is familiar first.  This will help you “feel” what it is like to play a similar exercise successfully, and ease you into working on something you do not yet know well.  If you find yourself frustrated from attempting an unfamiliar exercise or passage, try playing your “model” exercise again to reset your head space.

Use a timer and schedule breaks.

I like to work for 25 minutes, and then take five minutes off.  An egg timer or a cell phone timer are perfect for this.  Set your timer, and work through your routine undisturbed until it goes off.  Now set it for five minutes, and spend it doing whatever you want: get a breath of fresh air, a bathroom break, or a Facebook update (maybe something about how you’re “grinding so hard”).  Then get back to it for 25 minutes, and repeat.  If you have a long list of things to practice, this is a great way to keep yourself focused and working diligently while maintaining your focus.  You will find that you have spent several hours practicing without even realizing it.

Play!

Of course, practice is critical to a musician’s development, but it is equally important to play and enjoy the fruits of your labor.  Just “goofing around” can lead you to unexplored territory on your instrument and provide valuable insight into your own limitations, thus shedding light on more concepts to incorporate into your practice.

Get one-on-one help.

Find a teacher in your area to study with and ask them about their own practice habits.  If you are a guitarist in the Portland area, feel free to contact me for a lesson and learn how you can implement these and other methods towards your own musical growth.

3 thoughts on “How to Learn — Practice Tips

  1. My great and constant problem is having consistent and singular focus. I often get frustrated working on something, say i’m working on something thats is taking weeks to even get a basic handle on, for instance, recently I’ve been working on very canonic music in a way I haven’t since I was a child.

    After a lot of intense practice you can really loose track of the music. It all can start to seem really meaningless. When I get to that point I take a page from John Fahey and start to improvise intros for the thing I’m working on. Or I’ll play a Hank Williams song and try to lead it into the thing I’m working on.

    In the classical music world this is considered very corse territory. It’s very important to continually re-connect with the music you are working on. Listen, sing along, think about the choices the composer made and how they relate to what you want out of it. My most profound experience in music haven’t come from the handful of times I’ve been able to play something flawlessly, but rather when the incantation that is the musical experience has taken over fully.

  2. Great post! I wish every teacher and player gave their thoughts on how to practice, very insightful!

    I just finished (and started again) reading Kenny Werner’s “Effortless Mastery” and he spoke a lot about not moving forward until what you are doing is as effortless as, in his example, using a fork. For most professional musicians, who are pretty much always in triage mode and juggling a lot of commitments, how to do you handle learning at a pace that is effective for your own absorption but meets the demands for your upcoming gigs?

    Thanks!

    1. Hey Milo,

      That is a great question, and I am definitely guilty of occasionally going into “triage mode”!

      I find myself frequently in situations where I have to rapidly absorb new repertoire, for example if I start playing with a new band or have a sub gig, etc. I found it extremely effective to start listening to recordings of the repertoire as soon as I book the gig, even if the gig is months out. I make a playlist of all of the upcoming repertoire that I will be responsible for, and listen to it on repeat while I am commuting or doing busywork. Once I have absorbed the sound of the music, it is much easier for me to play it, knowing what it should sound like coming out. The other thing that I do is make a chart of the music as I transcribe it. This came in very helpful for me when I first joined CPD; I found that by the time I was done writing out my part for a given song, I had the form and much of the parts memorized.

      Of course, this all works well for learning new repertoire, but does not work for learning new technical skills. The only way to do that is the old-fashioned way–slow, consistent and diligent practice.

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