Learning an instrument at any age is highly recommended. However, instrumental and piano practice tips for adults are different to children.
As we grow older, our learning speed slows down. Our life experiences can significantly influence our mindset. That’s why I’ve put together these music practice tips.
If you are interested in learning more, check out my book Play Music Better.
“With refreshing honesty, she addresses the various challenges that adults face learning instruments….with these excellent tips and thoughtful explanations hopefully more adult learners can enjoy their practice.”Music Teacher Magazine, Aug 2022
Practice Little and Often
So often, I read on forums and Facebook pages that people do several hours of piano practice a day, and they recommend you do the same thing if you want to make progress.
Spoiler alert: it doesn’t. There’s nothing worse than thinking that spending hours per day practising under the guise that if you repeat the music enough times, you’ll be playing with fluency and accuracy within a matter of days.
Contrary to what people say, the progress that comes with this practice method *can* happen –– but it will be slow.
So, how much practice per day should you do?
The quick answer (unless you are an advanced player) is two 15-20 minute practice sessions—ideally one in the morning and one in the evening. However, your instrumental or piano practice time shouldn’t always involve physically playing.
Professional musicians spend lots of time studying, listening and thinking about the music. As you progress along your musical journey, your music or piano practice routine can involve more sessions. However, the length of these sessions should still be short, with regular breaks within the day.
Learn the difference between practice and playing
Learning music is similar to sports such as golf or football. In sports, from a young age, you have training and matches. In golf, you play around perhaps once a week, but you also go to the driving range or putting green regularly.
For most people, there’s little confusion here. The driving range is where you spend time practising your technique. The round of golf at the weekend is where you play no matter what.
The difference between Practising and playing an instrument or piano for adults is often confused. The two are completely different, and most people who claim to do lengthy practice sessions confuse this with playing.
Instrumental and piano practice techniques involve having a clear focus, a set goal and a way to measure progress. When practising, you should never go through the whole piece (unless you are preparing for a performance).
Playing is the fun part of learning an instrument. Whether you choose to play tunes that you’ve previously known or want to sight-read.
Analyse the Music Before you Begin.
One of the best practice tips I can share is to analyse the music before you play any notes. Whether you are an advanced clarinettist or just beginning piano, for adults, there is a lot of information to absorb when learning a new piece of music.
Unfortunately, our memory and learning speed slows down as we grow older, so marking up the music helps us get ahead when practising. We are also far more critical of our errors and level of progress.
By studying the music and writing things down, such as fingering patterns, breath marks, phrases, and accidentals that repeat, you are much more likely to avoid making errors.
Be Consistent with and within your Practice.
If you google how do I play faster or “piano playing tips”, you are likely to come across the term muscle memory.
Now while there is no such thing as muscle memory (our muscles don’t have a memory), you must strengthen the neural pathways to play your instrument well. You do this by repeating an action in the same way.
In music terms, that means practising a bar accurately and with the same fingering pattern each time. That’s why writing reminders on your music, such as those mentioned in tip 3, are beneficial. Repeating music in this way is sometimes called blocked practice.
Study the Composer and Gain Some Historical Context.
To play musically, it helps if you understand the style and character of the piece. So often, historical or personal events, landscapes, trends or traditions influence composers’ music.
I recently visited Fingal’s Cave which has inspired many compositions, including the Hebrides Overture by Mendelssohn. Look at the pictures below, and then listen to the piece on Youtube.
Click here to listen to the Hebrides Overture by Mendelssohn on Youtube.
You can’t help but connect on a deeper level with the music when you know more about the context in which it was written. Learning about a composer’s compositional techniques or style will also help you understand the music.
Learn more about Baroque Music Characteristics in this post.
Find a recording of the Piece and Listen to it Regularly.
Listening to music is a great way to practice, and it’s something you can do anywhere. It’s one of the tips for practising piano and other instruments that you’ve probably heard before. However, I want to reiterate that you should listen to the piece a lot before you start practising.
It will help you learn the rhythms, internalise the music and give you a better sense of musical awareness.
It’s also a good idea to find a selection of recordings and make a comparison. You can learn a lot from someone who is not performing the piece well, so try scrolling through YouTube to one of the later options if there are lots of choices.
Practice with a Metronome.
Understanding rhythm and being able to play in time is the most crucial aspect of learning an instrument. Without a consistent pulse, it’s almost impossible to play musically.
Forget about tapping your foot. It’s not the same thing. You will always slow down at the more challenging parts and speed up when the music gets easier.
Your brain can only focus on so much, so while you think you are tapping consistently, you aren’t. The only way to ensure rhythmic precision is to play with a metronome.
Practising from day one with a metronome is one of the instrumental and piano tips for beginners to implement. It becomes much harder to play with a metronome if you’ve been learning for some time. However, it will make a big difference to your playing, so it’s worth persevering.
Check out this post on my Facebook Page, Musician in the Making, if you need help.
Vocalise the Rhythms to a Metronome.
There’s a lot to think about when you learn a woodwind, brass, string instrument or piano. Adults often attempt to do everything that once, and that’s when mistakes that are hard to eliminate later creep in.
Focusing on individual elements such as rhythm, pitch, tone, or balance is a more sure way to progress.
Whether you use numbers or words to vocalise the rhythm, there is a common phrase amongst professionals and teachers worth remembering.
“If you can’t say it, you can’t play it”.
You should be able to say the rhythm with a metronome without any hesitation. It’s also fun to vocalise the rhythm while listening to a recording if the music version is the same.
Warm-up Properly before you begin.
To reach your optimum level of performance on an instrument or piano, adults, in particular, should warm up their muscles and focus their minds before they begin.
The modern world is full of distractions, and unfortunately, most of us have become attached to our mobile phones. Even if you leave your device outside the piano practice room, there is likely something that your subconscious mind is thinking about.
It could be an email, what to cook for dinner, or the item you forgot to pick up from the supermarket—either way, focusing the mind before you practice is a top practice tip.
You should also warm up the muscles in your body by doing some stretches and take a few minutes to consider your posture.
Keep Your Head Forward and Up.
If you search online piano practice tips or something similar, you are unlikely to come across this tip. However, it’s one of the easiest things to do, and it makes a massive difference in your playing.
So often, adults learn forwards into their instruments or look down at the keys. When you do this, you compromise your ability to breathe, which affects your brain’s capacity to learn and your coordination.
By keeping your head balanced on your spine, you’ll notice that you can play with more ease and fluency. The results are astonishing for adults because we all tend to slouch without realising it as we grow older.
Use the Scales/ Arpeggios/Chord patterns from your piece to warm up.
There’s nothing new about recommending scales practice. However, it’s beneficial to practice scales related to the key of the piece you are learning.
Adults often ask me how to practice piano scales and other instrumental patterns. Most music is derived from scales or a motif, and you want to mark these on the music when you analyse your piece.
Learners often miss such patterns because the notes are often mixed up in a bar of music. Hence the best way to practice piano scales is to start on different notes.
You can also get creative by practising the notes with different rhythms and improvising to a scales backing track. All these methods apply regardless of what instrument you are learning. If you are looking for some ideas, check out this post.
Enjoy Playing More Music Confidently
Get excited and gain motivation by losing those frustrating gaps and errors.
Clap the rhythm before you play the notes
Once you can vocalise the rhythm, practice clapping it to a metronome. It’s a good idea to record yourself and check to see whether you are clapping the rhythms accurately.
Try saying the counts to your recording and see whether your claps align with the metronome. If you are struggling to clap the rhythm, resist the temptation to play the notes. Once you learn something incorrectly is hard to put it right later.
Try breaking the rhythm down and using the metronome click to represent the shortest note value. For example, if you have a passage of semiquavers (sixteenth notes), play one note per click and gradually increase the speed.
This method incorporates slow practice and blocked practice, so it’s a good way of strengthening your rhythmic memory. Divide your piece into sections
Plan What you will Practice each Session Ahead of Time.
Keeping a practice diary and having a clear focus planned for each practice session ensures that you make the most of your time.
Divide your music into bite-size ( 4-8 bars) sections and focus on one area per day. In your music or piano practice book, make yourself a practice timetable.
Write down which section you will practice each day and what the focus will be. You could concentrate on the rhythm, the pitches, the balance between the hands, the articulation etc.
Make a note ahead of the practice session about what you will find challenging and what methods you will use to make progress.
Far too often, learners play too quickly. They try and subdivide the rhythms and don’t keep a consistent tempo. To ensure that you have enough thinking time, you need to slow down.
When I say slow down, I mean count in the lowest note values and go at a speed that you can play all the right notes in the right place. Don’t be tempted to increase the tempo until you’ve repeated the bars a few times confidently.
You’ll know when you can play with ease, as you’ll start to relax. That’s the time to increase the metronome mark by a few increments.
Don’t try and play everything all at once.
Whether you are doing piano scales practice, orchestral extracts on the clarinet or a piece from a beginner’s book, you shouldn’t try and do everything all at once.
- Say the note names out loud
- Clap the rhythm’s
- Play the rhythm on one note
- Go through the articulation patterns
- Sing the melody- have a go
- Practice the notes kinaesthetically
before trying to play it all together on your instrument.
You’ll find you make more consistent progress when you practice the individual elements and then put them together slowly. It will also help you retain the information for longer as you’ll be more aware of the various aspects.
Take Regular Breaks.
Human beings, on average, have an attention span of 15 minutes before their mind starts to wander. Once you begin to lose focus, you are wasting your time practising.
Sure, you may still make progress during that session, but you are unlikely to retain the information. You’ve probably experienced how frustrating it is to play something one day, but the next, you can’t start where you left off.
Taking regular breaks heightens your focus and keeps you more alert, so you’ll achieve more and store the information for longer. Ideally, according to scientific research, you want to practice the most challenging things in the evening and recap them again in the morning.
Your brain continues to learn and process things when you are sleeping. By going over the information in the morning, you’ll increase your retention further.
Change your Focus Regularly during your Practice.
If you want to stay motivated and alert in your practice sessions, it’s essential to switch tasks regularly. If you follow the same pattern every day, e.g. scales or piano practise exercises, followed by your piece, it’s time to mix things up more.
Perhaps intersperse your scales between clapping some rhythms or playing a few bars slowly. You could focus on the articulation within a few bars or play your scales at different dynamic levels.
I go into much more detail on this in my book Play Music Better.
Don’t just Work on the Pitch and Rhythms.
Sure the rhythm and pitch are essential to get right. However, articulation, phrasing, dynamics, breath control etc., are all crucial parts of playing musically.
Take a few bars from your piece and try playing them at different dynamic levels or with varying articulation patterns. Think about how you can improve the tone or posture and make a note of the results.
Set yourself Short and Long Term Goals.
Without clear goals, there’s a tendency to wander and progress slows down. You want to establish short and long-term goals so that you can measure your results and keep gaining momentum.
I always suggest that students use the Smart Formula and write their goals at the back of their music or piano practice books.
Learn more about how you to plan music goals that will drive your motivation here.
Measure your Progress.
When you are in the daily grind of things, it’s hard for us all to see the levels of progress we make. A great example of this is if you’ve been on a diet and you can see the pounds slowly going down on the scales, but you don’t feel any different.
That is until one of your friends who you’ve not seen in a while says, “you’re looking good. Have you lost weight”.
When you track your progress on paper or these days in an app, you can remind yourself regularly about how far you’ve come. Metronome marks, breath control, and dynamic variations understanding of theory are all easy things to track.
Keep a Practice Diary.
We all think that we’ll remember what we’ve practised, but the reality is you’re bound to forget something. It’s like when you go to the supermarket without a checklist. You forget to buy that tin of tomatoes, even though it’s an item you purchase every week.
Keeping a practice diary is all part of planning and establishing practice habits that will help you fulfil your musical potential.
Practice without your Instrument.
Whether you’re short of practice time or not, you can achieve a lot without your instrument. I’ve already mentioned some things earlier in this post. Going through the notes of your piece either mentally or kinaesthetically is a great way to make progress.
You can also listen to a recording of your music, practice singing the melody, or clapping the rhythms. Spend time processing the challenges within a piece of music. You’ll find it of great benefit when you come to your physical practice.
Reflect on your Practice.
Evaluating how your instrumental or daily piano practice went is invaluable. So many learners continue to do the same thing every session, hoping that things will gradually improve.
By reflecting on what methods work and what don’t, you’ll find the best-practice techniques for yourself. If something isn’t working, don’t be afraid to change your approach.
Find Problems to Solutions.
Often there is a problem behind the problem. For example, if you are struggling to play a passage fast enough, it could be that you are holding too much tension in the wrists or shoulders. Hence doing some relaxation exercises and adjusting your posture could be the solution.
Play with an Accompaniment.
Another one of my top tips is to practice regularly playing with others or with an accompaniment. This can be challenging, particularly for adults learning piano. Still, it can also be difficult for instrumentalists to find a local band to join.
You learn a great deal when you perform alongside players who are more experienced than yourself, and it’s a fantastic way of improving your rhythm. It also helps you become more adept at sight-reading, and your confidence will soar. Plus, it’s lots of fun.
You can participate in a monthly ensemble as a member of the Learn Music Together Academy. You also get a video of the ensemble to share with friends and family.
Head over to this page and discover how the Learn Music Together Academy can help you grow and develop your musical skills.
Record Yourself Frequently.
Recording your practice sessions makes identifying errors much easier. It’s also a fantastic way to document your progress, and it can be a great motivational resource.
All you need to record yourself nowadays is a smartphone. Recording a video is the best way to assess your sessions, as you can look at your posture and listen to the sound.
Ask yourself, if the rhythms are correct, are you holding any tension in your body, are you making a good sound? Are you creating a contrast in the dynamic shades? Is the articulation accurate?
You can listen back as often as you like to get the answers to such questions and then make a list of things to focus on in your subsequent practice sessions.
Start your practice at different bars within the Music.
So many adult learners start practising from bar 1 every session. Inevitably, that often means that the opening few bars are the best, and as the piece progress’s more and more errors occur.
To ensure that you can play the whole piece with confidence, start your practice sessions at different bars. When you are learning new music, you should divide the piece into bite-size sections, as I explained earlier, but it’s time to put the piece together when you can play these.
At this point, you’ll probably need to work on joining the sections together. The best way to do this is to start at the final bar of one section and practice the bridge between that bar and the first bar of the next section.
Finally, you want to be able to start at any point within the piece. If you can do this, it means that you know the music well, and even if you make a mistake, you’ll be able to keep your nerve and carry on.
Visualise the Music.
One of the most powerful practice methods is visualisation. In a way, it’s a type of memory recall, and it exercises a different part of the brain to that which we use when playing.
Spend some time each day and visualise the bars that you practised earlier. Go through the notes in your mind and the fingering you use to play them. Try singing the melody or recalling the rhythm. Visualise yourself being able to play the whole piece as you progress.
Perform outside the Music or Piano Practice Room.
While you might want to be a professional musician, performing for others is an invaluable way to make progress. You learn a lot about yourself when performing, and you’ll bring joy to the hearts of everyone who listens.
If it’s too overwhelming to play by yourself, perform in an ensemble or duet. When you step outside your comfort zone, you often achieve so much more. Having a performance deadline focuses the mind for many people.
Still, if you are not used to performing, the pressure can be too much. To prevent this:
- Invite family and friends to listen regularly.
- Play pieces that are below the standard that you are currently at and repertoire that you know well.
- Set yourself up for success, and you’ll discover that the act of performing is more enjoyable, not to mention beneficial, than you think.
Choose Pieces that are Suitable for your Level.
Adults often have specific pieces that they want to learn. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s no good practising something that’s too challenging.
To make progress, we all have to experience success. If you make little progress during your practice sessions, your motivation and enthusiasm will dwindle over time. Be mindful if you are using a tutor book.
So often, such books introduce something new with every piece. For most people, one piece is not enough to practice a new note, chord, etc.
Supplementing the tutor book with some appropriate additional repertoire is an excellent way of consolidating what you’ve already learnt. If you take lessons, don’t be afraid to talk to your teacher if you find the music too challenging. If you need any suggestions for sheet music, ask in my Facebook Group.
End your sessions with pieces you can already play
The fun part of learning any musical instrument is playing. Building a repertoire of pieces you can play is all part of the process. At the end of every practice session, enjoy yourself by spending time playing music you’ve learnt previously.
Do you want to enjoy playing more music without those frustrating errors?
I have a Free Practice Guide with 10 Tips that will help you learn more music in less time.
Practice Sight-Reading Regularly.
Being a competent sight reader is a sure way of getting ahead in your music practice. Developing good sight reading skills takes practice and commitment. Start simple is my best practice tip here.
There’s a lot to think about when you read and play music. The skill of reading ahead is one of the key things that you have to develop when sight-reading, and this is an invaluable skill when it comes to practice.
By reading ahead, you know what is coming up in the music, and you can prepare accordingly.
To learn more about how to practice sight reading, go here.
Once you can play a piece, Practice it in Different Ways.
A great way to achieve more musicality in your playing and open up your creative side is to change the character of the piece you are practising. Not only is it a fun thing to do, but it will also help you play with more feeling and raise your musical awareness.
Take a piece that you know well. Instead of worrying about all the right notes in the right place, try this changing the character of the piece: Make it an angry piece, a march, play it in a jazz style, or with a romantic feel. Get creative; imagine you are Bach entertaining guests at a dinner or a ballerina gracefully moving across the floor.
After going through the exercise several times with different characters, ask yourself how your playing has changed or evolved.
Join a group of like-minded people.
They’ll be times along your musical journey when you get frustrated or, even worse, feel like quitting. It happens to us all, so even if you are yet to experience it yet, you will, at some point.
Surrounding yourself with like-minded people who can support you during the downtime and the up is essential. Sure your family and friends are on your side; however, unless they play an instrument, they don’t really understand the challenges you are facing.
Talking your problems through with others and sharing your achievements, no matter how small, with people who really get it will enhance your experience. There are many online forums, Facebook groups and memberships that you can join to meet other adult learners.
Be Kind to Yourself.
Adults are often highly critical of themselves in comparison to children. They judge their achievements from the end result and compare themselves to others. Children, however, go with the flow.
Take, for example, a child who is learning to walk. They fall more times than they take steps, but they keep getting back up and trying again. At each fall, they laugh and see the whole process as a game. Not once do they compare themselves to the toddler next to them.
We all learn at different speeds and in different ways. Your musical journey is your own, so please be kind to yourself and don’t compare your achievements to others.