Effective music practice- Get the most out of your sessions

Effective music practice is a crucial skill for anyone who plays an instrument. Learning how to practice music, though, is a skill in itself.

Grab this free video to boost your practice skills before you keep on reading.

Everybody who learns an instrument knows that to make progress, you have to practice. Yet, so many people experience slow progress, which enviably leads to lack of motivation and in the worse scenario, giving up.

Most of the time, this is due to ineffective practice. Do you sit down with your instrument, play through a piece a few times, maybe stop to correct a bar here and there, before continuing.

Once you’ve played the bar a couple of times, you move. Does this sound like something you do?

Well, that kind of practice is inefficient. However, the good news is there’s plenty of things you can do that will make a difference. So keep reading! 

Effective practice, on the other hand, will save you time, reap you better results and get you playing those pieces faster.

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In this post, I’ll cover the best music practice strategies and provide you with plenty of music practice tips that will make a massive difference to your musical journey.

The post is divided into two parts. Part one focus’s on planning and part two focuses on practice techniques.

An image that says effective music practice with a cello, girl playing guitar and a flautist.

Learning how to practice music efficiently and effectively takes time, so be kind to yourself in the process.

Understanding the core foundations of music is key to learning any piece. If you are to learn how to practice music effectively, you will almost certainly need to make some changes.

Change can be challenging, so commit and trust the process.

The best music practice sessions are carefully planned and incorporate these core foundations.

Every session should include some music sight-reading practice, interval practice, music theory and a music practice book.

If you are looking for further guidance on making progress with your instrument, why not check out the Learn Music Together Academy?

PART ONE

The following tips will also give you a better understanding of how to practice an instrument.

Tip 1 -Establish a Music Practice space

In an ideal world, we’d all have music practice rooms where we could have everything we need to hand. However, the reality for most people is that they practice in a place that has a duel purpose.

Therefore keeping the area clutter-free is likely to be less of a problem than those who have a music practice studio. It is essential though to have everything you need for your music practice at easy reach.

An image of a piano with everything close by for effective music practice

Here’s a quick checklist

  • Sheet Music
  • Pencil
  • Rubber
  • Metronome
  • Music practice diary and music practice plan
  • Stand
  • Instrument

Where to practice music

Now I know it’s not always possible to find a space to practice that’s private, especially if you play an instrument like a piano. However, try and find the time when you can have the room to yourself with no distractions such as the tv in the background.

An image of a mobile phone, email, friends socialising and a tv, with a Red Cross through the middle.

It’s also wise to put your mobile devices into aeroplane mode while you practice so that you can focus on the task at hand.

Enjoy Playing More Music Confidently

Get excited and gain motivation by losing those frustrating gaps and errors.

Tip 2 – Make a music practice log

As humans, we are creatures of habit, and you’ll find you make more progress if you can establish a music practice schedule that doesn’t change from week to week.

Rather than committing to a time each day, it’s best to plan your instrument practice routine around an event. An event could be after breakfast or when you’ve put the kids to bed.

Note that one or two short sessions a day are much more useful than one long session -we’ll learn more about that further into the challenge.

Here’s an example of a practice routine.

DAYSESSION 1SESSION 2
MONDAYListen to a podcast on the way to workAfter arriving home & having a cup of tea practice
TUESDAYSay the letter names of D Major during lunchPractice session after evening meal
WEDNESDAYNo PracticePractice session after evening meal
THURSDAYPractice session before breakfastWatch a YouTube tutorial while waiting for kids
FRIDAYNo PracticeNo Practice
SATURDAYPractice session after breakfastPractice session before evening meal
SUNDAYPlay during the church servicePractice session before evening meal

Now, I can already hear some of you say, that won’t work for me; my plans change daily. That’s ok- do your best, aim to keep a couple of practices at the same time each weekend or before you leave for work.

Make sure you sketch out a music practice chart. 

Tip 3- Keep things Realistic.

This tip applies on several levels, but note that to feel motivated and enjoy the musical journey, you need to know that you are making progress.

Learning music can be challenging; there’s a lot to think about. It’s all too easy to lose focus and concentration while practicing, and of course, this leads to lack of motivation.

I always explain motivation using my version of the circle of awesomeness. If you make progress during practice, you feel great; this inspires you to play more. When you play more, you progress more.

An image with a red heart that has music notes across it.  The text explains my circle of effective music practice.

Of course, this circle has the opposite effect when you practice something too challenging for your level or ability. Hence, progress is slow; you don’t feel motivated to it. Therefore you practice less, and this has a detrimental effect on your progress.

So make sure you are practising pieces that are at the right standard.

I frequently come across people who are too eager to learn the next note or rapidly progress through a tutor book. They begin with enthusiasm, but as the difficulty increases, the motivation starts to weaken.

There’s nothing wrong with taking sideways steps to consolidate what you’ve already learnt. It’s a step that I always recommend to my students.

Don’t just move from one tutor book to the next; there’s so much music out there that it helps your progress if you explore it.

Whatever level you are at, you should be able to play a piece within one week to a reasonably high standard.

I have had people change grade 8 exam pieces the week before the exam, and they’ve gained distinctions. They can do this because they are above the standard that they need to be.

Unlike many, they haven’t spent six months learning three pieces for an exam. I’m sure you’ve come across these types of people in life. They can play virtually no other repertoire other than their exam repertoire.

Write down in your music practice journal how you feel about your recent progress – Are you happy with it? If not, why? What do you think has caused you to lose motivation?

If you are happy, how are you going to ensure that you keep motivated? What has contributed to keeping your motivation high and your progress successful?

Print off some music practice quotes and stick them around the area you practice. Use them as motivational tools and sources of inspiration.

On another note, it’s also essential to set achievable practice goals. My recommendation is that you focus on one phrase per practice. You don’t want to be playing through the entire piece.

Every practice session should have a goal.

Here are a few suggestions that you could add to your practice regime that you created yesterday.

1) Play through the first phrase slowly but accurately,

2)Increase the tempo from x to x with a metronome

3) Add dynamic detail and ensure that the contrasts are effective

4) Focus on the articulation or other performance detail

5) Concentrate on improving one aspect of your technique

Lastly, be kind to yourself and remember not everyone will reach a professional standard. That’s fine. It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to get to the standard you’re aiming for, so long as every time you practice, you make progress.

You take a step forward, you stay focused, and you enjoy your musical journey.

To help members stay on track in our Learn Music Together Academy I have a roadmap, which has proved highly effective.

If you want to learn more about setting music goals check out this post.

Tip 4-Write lots of reminders on your practice music sheets.

The first thing I do when I receive a new piece of music is to sit down with a pencil and study the notes.

Writing notes on the music is something that many people at the start of their musical journey skip. Perhaps they’re worried that they’ll get it wrong or your teacher will disagree with you.

I’ve heard it argued many times that if you write the flats and sharps in when you practice music notes or the rhythm you’ll never progress. It’s simply not true.

I encourage my students to highlight the sharps/flats throughout a piece before they start practising. Particularly bars that have accidentals where they are likely to miss them if the note appears again later in the bar.

An image showing Bach's Minuet in G.  The scale patterns and key signature is highlighted.

I’ve taught hundreds, if not thousands of students from beginner to postgraduate level. I can tell you that as you progress along your musical journey, you’ll learn much more about patterns and shapes within the music. The natural progression means that you won’t always need to highlight everything.

For the first few years, or maybe even longer its better to write that accidental, key signature or rhythm on so that you don’t spend a whole week getting it wrong.

Have you ever done that, rocked up to a lesson thinking that your piece was great only to find the teacher say, you’ve forgotten the F# here or the change of key midway through the piece?

Why is it important to write on the music?

To learn anything, you probably already know that repetition is essential. Whether it be writing your name, reading words or doing a physical activity, it takes many repetitions before that action becomes automatic.

Our brain, however, is extraordinary and files all the information we input, including all the errors we make along the way.

For us to play an instrument, different parts of the brain have to communicate. The brain sends electronic signals through our nerves which allow us to make the necessary movements to play our instruments accurately.

You want to make sure that your brain sends the correct signals, so practising things accurately should always be the priority. Writing notes on the music, is one way that helps.

Here are a few ideas of what you could mark up

  • Highlight the key signatures throughout the piece
  • Mark on any accidentals that occur in the same bar
  • Look through the music and see if any bars repeat or they’re similar to ones you’ve played before.
  • Write on any fingering – this doesn’t just apply to pianists. You can also right on positions, valve combinations or the best fingering option for a particular note if there are several ways to play it. All these improve your music note reading practice.
  • Write on the counting or mark the main beats of the bar with a line. I suggest using words to help vocalise the rhythm; it really helps music rhythm practice.
  • Mark on the phrase lengths.

You can read more about phrasing in music in this post here.

Tip 5 Warm up properly before you play

Warming up is something not to be skipped. It allows the mind, body and in some cases, the instrument to prepare so that you can play at the highest level possible for your ability.

Let’s make that sentence even better –

Warming up helps you reach your peak physical performance!

Often we squeeze practice into our daily routine. Maybe you’ve been dashing around, just picked up the kids or gone grocery shopping.

You get home and have half an hour to spare before you need to start preparing dinner, so you fit in a bit of practice as you haven’t done any today.

We don’t always focus our mind and body on the task at hand, which is the problem with this approach. Perhaps you’re thinking of what to cook, or the item you forgot to buy while shopping, but at the same time, you are going through the motions of practice.

I’m sure you’ve had that experience before that while doing an action, your mind has been thinking about doing other things.

Prepare the mind

Preparing the mind before you begin your practice is invaluable. It should become one of those music practice habits that is automatic.

Take a few minutes to deep breathe, empty your head of thoughts and compose yourself, just like one does at the start of a yoga session.

Do a few shoulder roles followed by some circles with the neck. Get rid of the tension in the body. Stretch the arms and swing them around in a circle.

A couple of minutes spent doing this will go a long way helping your mind and body get in shape for your practice.

Injuries amongst musicians and athletes are not uncommon. Many stem from the lack of warm-up time and tension held in the body.

Next, spend a few moments warming up the hands or the vocal cords for singers.

You can check out this video on Musician in the Making for some ideas.

Warm up with the instrument

Depending upon what instrument you play, your warm-up exercises will vary. Below are a few suggestions, not all will be appropriate for your instrument, but they serve to give an idea of the types of things you could do.

To learn more take a few minutes today to search and explore the internet. Just type in warm-ups for (then add your instrument).

  • Do some exercises with just the mouthpiece
  • Play some long notes – this helps develop your embouchure and breath control. It also helps with intonation.
  • Practice some tonguing or strumming exercises
  • Play some open strings; this helps focus on the bow hold and tone production.
  • Practice some slurs, string crossing exercises, double stops, or basic chord patterns.
  • Play a few scales slowly.
  • Go through some exercises that are appropriate for your instrument. For example, the Hanon exercises for piano or the Londeix ones for saxophone.

Warming up wooden instruments

Make sure if your instrument is made from wood, that it is at room temperature before you begin. This also applies to classical guitars and any other instruments made from wood.

On a warm summers day, it’s best to leave your instrument out to raise the temperature before you start playing. This will not only make staying in tune easier, but it will also prevent damage such as a string breaking or worse still a crack appearing in the wood.

Want more accuracy and fluency in your playing?

I have a video tutorial which will help.


PART TWO

In part two of this guide, I’ll dive deeper into effective music practice methods and what makes effective music practise so rewarding.  

Tip 6 Always practise slowly!

If there is one practice music hack that you take away from this post, please let it be this one.

Often as learners, we don’t like to practice slowly for that long, but here’s the thing, if we speed up too soon we start to make errors. Errors are hard to correct, and take far more effort to put right than it does to practice things slowly. 

Check out the video below for more information on slow practice. You can apply the effective piano practice methods that I demonstrate in this video to any instrument.

Tip 7- Effective music practice involves deliberate practice.

There are two types of practice:

Mindless Practice and Deliberate Practice. 

Mindless practice is when you go through the motions of practice, maybe for 30 minutes or even an hour.

You play through things usually starting at the beginning of the piece. You might do a few repetitions when you stumble, but generally, you’re practising on autopilot.

In other words, you play until you get something wrong, you correct it, go over it once or twice and then continue until you fall again.

You then repeat the whole process until you feel that you’ve practised for long enough today.

Problems with mindless practice 

  • You waste a lot of time
  • Progress is slow.
  • You can play the same piece for days, weeks or even longer, and you still don’t feel like it’s improved. 

This type of practice strengthens the inaccuracies and errors in the playing. It then becomes hard to correct these weaknesses.

With mindless practice, you add to your workload.

You often feel deflated and lose motivation with this type of practice, as you never gain the confidence to play the piece accurately.

There’s always a bit that you get right sometimes but not always. This, of course, leads to frustration.

If you were to ask any of my students what is my best tip for performing they would say-

Confidence comes from knowledge. You have to practice properly so that you can play it and enjoy it!

Finally, mindless practice enviably leads to boredom and a lack of enjoyment.

At the end of the day, most people learn an instrument for pleasure. They want to make progress, but they also want to be able to play their favourite pieces.

I’ve said it before there’s nothing wrong with taking a sideways step and consolidating the things you’ve learnt before progressing onto the next level.

Deliberate Practice

Practising, in a thoughtful way with clear goals is deliberate practice. Music should also be practised slowly slow with lots of repetition, lots of thinking, and always listening.

By identifying errors and solving problems quickly, you input the information into the brain much more effectively.

If you are having difficulty finding a solution to the problem, brainstorm – ask in my free Facebook group Music lessons and practice. Or ask Google, even Alexa might have something to say.

The critical thing to realise with deliberate practice is that if something isn’t working, stop, think of another way before trying again.

Another favourite line that often crops up in my teaching is “Don’t bang your head against the wall.”

Deliberate practice takes much more energy and concentration. Therefore practice sessions should be shorter.

It’s essential to take regular breaks. We have more focus at the start of our practice session; thus, it’s more effective to do two shorter practices in a day than one long one.

The length depends upon your level of concentration, but I would suggest taking a break after 20 minutes.

Aim to put your practice sessions when you have the most energy. I’m a big fan of doing one practice session before you leave for work.

Document things in your Music practice notebook

Write down what you are going to do before you practice. At the end of your practice, make a note of what worked and what didn’t.

Then write down a few alternative ways you could use in tomorrows practice to overcome the problem.

Tip 8 – Correct an error as soon as it appears.

Understanding how the brain works will reiterate why correcting errors as soon as they appear should be an integral part of your instrument practice routine.

You should always practice slowly to ensure you are learning the correct sequence and series of movements before speeding it up. Once learnt, it is challenging to change these substantive circuits.

Hence mistakes are not easy to put right.

Practice doesn’t make perfect; only perfect practice makes perfect!

If you play an error while practising, correct it immediately and not just once.

Repeat the note that you did wrong several times, then repeat the whole bar until you can play it with ease. This usually means 10-20 repetitions. If in doubt always do more reps than you think, but keep them slow and accurate.

By the way, did nobody tell you that practising isn’t always fun! Hence it’s best to do short sessions of concentrated practice on one section of a piece and then switch to something else to create interest.

You are at your most focused at the start of your practice. So use this time to practice new sections and then play something that you can already play. This way, you’ll get some pleasure and enjoyment during your practice time as well as make progress.

So tip 9- Identify errors and overcome problems.

Hopefully, you will hear when something doesn’t sound right in the music. That’s why music aural practice is essential.

Ear training is something that many students only do if they are preparing for an exam. However, learning to hear intervals, cadences, and modulations is an essential part of learning music. 

When you are studying a piece of music, find a recording and listen to it regularly.

At this stage in our learning process, we should still be playing the music slowly and practising different sections each time we practice.

If you find it difficult to identify errors while you are playing, try recording yourself.

I call this listening music practice. It’s a great way of identifying any errors which you may have made.

If you can identify the errors, you can then work out a way to fix them. Here are a few suggestions

Errors in rhythm

To solve rhythmic errors its a good idea to do some counting music beats practice Write the counts on the music for that bar or section then say them to a metronome. I prefer to use words and their syllables to count rhythm- check out this post for some suggestions.

Now clap the rhythm while saying the counts out loud to a metronome.

Play the rhythm on one note on your instrument

Now slowly play it with the correct notes and rhythm on your instrument.

Repeat the bar or phrase lots of times so that the brain remembers the correct pattern.

If you struggle to use the metronome, click here and watch this short video.

Another great way to practice if you find a particular rhythm tricky is to use a scale and play that rhythm on each note.

Co-ordination

Practice the pair of notes and think about the co-ordination of the fingers or limbs. Is there a finger that lags behind the others. If so, are your fingers in the correct position.

Often people tend to play with their fingers too straight, so they don’t utilise each of the knuckles fully. Or the fingers are too far away from the keys for co-ordination to be successful.

You can practice exercises away from your instrument such as patting your head while rubbing your belly in a circle help co-ordination. Another one is drawing a circle with your right hand while drawing a triangle with the left hand.

Practice the bar using lots of different rhythms. This method is one of my favourites, as it does make a difference. It takes more concentration to play the notes in a different way to what is written on the page. When you’ve gone through 5 or 6 rhythmic patterns, the bar seems so much easier to play it as written.

Here’s another video from Musician in the Making which highlights some of these tips.

Tone and balance

Singers/ Wind and brass players- focus on the diaphragm. There’s plenty of exercises on the internet to help you develop your breath control- so find a few and give them a go. If you are not sure exactly where the diaphragm is, cough and you’ll feel your tummy kick- that’s your diaphragm.

I also have a little exercise to help find the diaphragm. Put your finger to your lip and say shhh then make an ooh sound until your lips vibrate. When your lips are vibrating slightly, you can feel the diaphragm muscles tighten.

On the piano, try ghosting (playing silently) with one hand while playing the other hand out loud. Repeat the bar and gradually increase the volume in the hand that was ghosting.

You can also try playing scales slowly with one hand playing legato and the other staccato.

Changing chords smoothly

Problems in chord shifts on guitar or keyboard are often to do with fingers. Check that you are using the best combination of fingers. Make sure the fingers are not too far away from the fretboard or keys. Keep relaxed and use the natural movements of the arm and hand to change positions.

Tension in the shoulders is often the cause of position shifts which are not smooth. Practice slowly and do the movement away from the instrument. Yes, air guitar playing is not just for people who imitate rock stars.

Using a metronome to increase the speed gradually will help. Make sure you write down the speed that you achieve each day, that way you’ll be able to see the improvement.

Practice reading ahead so that you’re aware of where the hand needs to move next.

Tip 10- Interleaved practice music.

There are many ways to practice; however, one of the most effective for developing long term memory is interleaved practice.

This involves switching the focus constantly within your practice and then revisiting things later in the session. 

Music practice techniques explained

Blocked Practice

Blocked practice is when you perform an action over and over again. You then move onto another section and practice in the same way.

For example, you’ve just spent some time practising the rhythm in one bar and then you move on to practising a similar rhythm somewhere else.

The underlying action is the same, i.e. practising the rhythm. Blocked practice can work well if you’ve identified an error that you need to correct.

Random Practice

Random practice is where you take several different actions and switch between them during your practice.

For example, you could practice the rhythm in the first couple of bars, but then go onto practice the dynamic and tonal contrasts in another section. Or you could switch to practising a scale or an exercise.

Interleaved Practice

This is similar to random practice, except you revisit each task. So you might focus on a scale for two minutes, then switch to studying the rhythm in a particular bar.

Then you might do some intervals music practice and then returning to do further practice on the scale.

So what music practice technique should you do?

The research varies on how long you should repeat things before changing the action, but I would say no more than 2 minutes.

That doesn’t sound like much, but if you set a timer and practice one bar for 2 minutes slowly, you’ll realise its long enough.

You’ll feel your concentration start to weaken. Remember if you make a mistake stop, take a short pause to think before you recommence.

By switching from one task to the next you’re keeping the brain alert, it has to work harder. Switching tasks forces the brain to recognise a distinction between the actions, which in turn strengthens neural pathways.

As a result, you will retain the information better as your brain draws from its long term memory.

If you want to strengthen this process even further try playing the bar again later in the day from memory (without looking at the music first).

Take a few moments to think about it before you try and correct any mistakes afterwards.

By memorising bits early in the learning process, you strengthen the neural pathways even further.

To practice in the most effective way, we need to combine deliberate practice with interleaved practice.

Below is an example of what I might do while practising Bach’s Minuet in G.

An image of Bach's Minuet in G sheet music.

3 minute warm-up without my instrument

2 Minutes practising G Major

5 minutes working on the rhythm of the first line (say it, clap it, play it on one note)

2 minutes practising D Major

1 minute practising bar 2 ensuring the staccato is crisp

2 minutes practising the crescendo on the last line

1 minute practising G Major

2 minutes practising the first line slowly

You can read more about playing music from the Baroque period here.

At the end of practise play through some pieces that you can already play. Take a 5-minute break before you do that – the perfect amount of time to grab a brew before returning to do some fun playing.

Try and recap what you practised later in the day slowly.

Now you might be thinking how on earth am going to keep track of the minutes.

Well, to begin with, use a metronome app that has a timer. There’s one called metro timer which is free to download.

If you get into the habit of planning what you are going to do each practice, you’ll soon learn how to switch tasks accordingly.

Keeping music practice logs is a great way to ensure that you are staying on track. Once a week, make a practice plan and after each practice, spend a few minutes writing down what you have achieved.

You should also make a note of metronome speeds and things that need further work.

Summary

You can also check my other posts on music practice here.

If you’ve got to the end of this post, firstly congratulations, I hope you’ve found it useful. There was, however, a lot of information, so why not enrol on my mini-course?

If you want to make progress every practice session and take your excitement, motivation and level of progress to new heights.

Check out the Learn the Secret to Effective Practice Mini-Course here

The effective practice mini-course will show you how to practice smarter and play better. Fuel your motivation, with practice methods that work and enjoy playing more music accurately and fluently.

If you would like more continued support in helping you have fun and better progress on your instrument please check out the Learn Music Together Membership.

Effective practice methods are invaluable and something that’s often overlooked in music lessons. My Learn Music Together Academy helps support adults who learning an instrument with their practice.

If you are interested in learning more about Learn Music Together, you can do so here.

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