Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Strategies for practicing effectively

I think one of the most neglected aspects of music education deals with how and what you should practice. So often you'll hear, "...well it takes lots of practice." or "You should practice every day..." or some other such statement declaring the importance of practice. I don't disagree that practice is important. It certainly is. However, if you've got no idea how to practice your efforts won't be nearly as effective and your gains won't happen as quickly. Learning to be a better musician is learning to practice better. They're pretty much the same thing. So, what do you do? Try this.

  • Goal Setting
If you're not setting a goal you're not really practicing. To me, practice is working to improve your playing. Just noodling with tunes you already know is fine but don't call it practice. This is the first step in any practice session.

I've already devoted an entire post to just goal setting. You can link to it here:

  • Learn where the fingers go
Perhaps this is stating the obvious but consider this, when you look at a page of sheet music you need to learn all the notes on that page not once, not twice, but three different ways. One for the left hand, one for the right, and one for both hands together. When you consider all those movements you'll soon realize that's a lot to memorize! If the hands don't work seamlessly in unison the music will fall apart. Don't underestimate how much time it takes to learn where your fingers go.

Go slow. Don't try to learn to much at one time. Take it in small chunks and learn them individually before you move on to the next section. Make sure you've mastered each section before moving on.

Do your homework. Make sure your finger positions are efficient and make the most sense. You need to think several "moves" ahead and choose movements that allow for the smoothest movement.

  • Phrase by Phrase
Once you start to memorize your fingerings you should play short phrases over and over, SLOWLY, trying to develop good muscle memory. Try to make your movements flow and feel effortless. Repeat these phrases several times. Repetition is the key. I've written another blog just on this subject. Link to it here:

Go slow! You can only develop muscle memory through slow patient movements. Speed is attained through control.

It's important to focus on individual phrases and not start at the beginning. Build the music up piece by piece. Once you can play phrases well try connecting them in longer sections.

  • Ask why
If you make a mistake don't just plow ahead, ASK WHY. This is very important. Something went wrong. Perhaps it was a bad fingering. Maybe you lost concentration. Maybe you haven't played a section over enough times. It could be anything, but you won't know how to fix it if you don't ask why.

These are just a few tips to help you on your musical journey. Practicing is a very personal and subjective thing. Your personal goals will dictate the amount of time you practice and the quality spent during that time. I hope that you'll take a deeper look at your own practice time and find ways to improve it. When in doubt consider this old nugget of wisdom, "Amateurs practice till they get it right once. Professionals practice till they can't get it wrong."

Hope it helps.


Brad said...

All excellent comments here. I would offer some additional emphasis regarding playing slowly. Many pro's practice at half tempo or so in order to solidify their finger movements in terms of efficiency and making sure the music flows. Something that helps me in this regard is to "identify" those sticky areas mentally and then do not let your fingers proceed until you have your brain on board. Perhaps this is obvious, however it is so very easy to play through "sticky" areas incorrectly and sloppy, and then that is what your brain will learn. So, go slow, but again, do not let the fingers proceed until the brain has it correct. Ultimately, learning will occure much more quickly this way. Pierre Bensusan talks about this in his Guitar Book. I read it before and in other places but it doesn't really sink in, until you've wasted a lot of time and finally stopped and asked yourself, "What am I doing wrong?" Stop and analyze those sticky areas, go slow but do it right no matter how slow the brain seems at first- in a few days of focus on these areas the brain will learn- I know I was amazed when I finally followed these guidelines and then really started progressing:)

Bradley Carter said...

More great advice. I can't agree more.