How to practice music without your instrument and still make progress.

You don’t always need to practice on your instrument to make progress. Here’s how to practice without an instrument and still improve your playing and musical skills.

There could be many reasons why you can’t physically play, such as working away from home, recovering from an injury, taking an extended holiday, not wanting to disturb the neighbours etc. But don’t let any of those things deter you from doing some practice.

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As a professional musician, I can tell you that I learnt a long time ago that practice has to become an integral part of life.  

For example, if I’m listening to music in the car, I can’t help but work out the time signature and think about the chord progressions or the rhythm.  

So often I hear as a teacher the words, I haven’t had time to practice because…. and then a whole string of excuses.  In reality, we all have the same number of hours in the day, but how we use those pockets of spare time is what makes the difference. 

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There is always something you can do, even if you’ve been away from your instrument all week.  

In this post, I will share with you 13 things you can do to practice music without your instrument so you can play music better. 

Some of my practice tips are super quick and will take you under a minute; some are more challenging and will require some practice. 

4 images showing listening to music in the car, on television and whilst shopping in the mall.

1. Tap the Beat

Any time you hear music, whether it’s on the radio, TV, or in a store, try tapping out the beat or counting the time signature. This exercise helps you develop a sense of rhythm and time, and you can do it discreetly or visually, depending on the situation.

Image of hands doing finger coordination exercises.

2. Finger Coordination exercises

Regardless of the instrument you play, finger coordination is essential. Practice finger exercises that focus on isolating the movements of each finger. This will improve your dexterity and control, even without the instrument in hand

Image of reading music apps and some music note flash cards.

3. Practise Reading Letter Names

Use an app or flashcards to practice reading letter names. You can make it more challenging by focusing on ledger line notes or naming the notes for specific chords or scales. This exercise sharpens your music theory knowledge and note recognition skills.

4. Clap Rhythms with a Metronome

Clap out rhythms with a metronome.  Keep a picture of the music you are learning on your phone, and clap out a phrase.  You could then say the letter names and clap the rhythm of that phrase together with a metronome.

5. Breathing Exercises

Practising proper breathing techniques is crucial for any musician regardless of what instrument you play. Focus on mindful breathing or exercises that strengthen your abdominal muscles. Not only does this help with relaxation and reducing tension, but it also improves breath control while playing.

Try a simple breathing exercise during your walks or whenever you have a moment to spare. Here’s one to get you started.

Breathe in for 4 beats

Hold in for 4 beats

Breathe out for 8 beats

6. Ear Training Exercises

Engage in ear tests such as singing intervals, recognizing cadences, and identifying modulations. Utilise ear training apps or practice these exercises on your own. Developing your ear will enhance your overall musicianship and improve your ability to play by ear.

Exercises Requiring More Time and Organisation

All the above exercises can be done in just a few minutes.  Now let’s move on to some things that take a little longer and may need you to be slightly more organised.

Image of sheet music annotated.

7. Mark up your Sheet Music

Take the time to annotate your sheet music or scores. Highlight key signatures, patterns, chord sequences, and mark the structure of phrases. Research the composer and consider how they communicate the piece’s title through the music. Look up lyrics if applicable and write them on the music.

8. Practice Fingering Patterns or Combinations

You can do this at a table if you play the piano, with a ruler if you play violin or guitar, or using a pen if you’re a woodwind or brass player.  It’s not as easy as you think because you have to hear the sound of the notes as you play.  It’s also a good way of hearing whether your fingers move simultaneously. 

9. Listen to a Recording and Sing the Music

Listen to a recording of the piece you’re learning and try to sing along with the music. You could make this more challenging by seeing if you could move the fingers correctly as you sing the notes which will enhance your coordination and internalisation of the piece.

10. Compare Recordings

Compare different recordings of the piece you’re practicing. Take note of differences in tempo, articulation, dynamics, and tonal qualities. Analyse which performance conveys the mood better, which one do you prefer and why. Then consider how these differences influence your own interpretation.

Image of Learn Music Together YouTube channel and the book Play Music Better by Fiona Berry

11. Expand Your Knowledge

Read blog posts, watch videos on YouTube, and listen to music-related podcasts. Save videos to watch later and download podcast episodes to listen to while travelling. Expanding your knowledge about music and its various aspects broadens your understanding and inspires creativity.

Purchase a copy of Play Music Better here
Image of sheet music and a mind map.

12. Create a Mindmap

You could create a short code to memorise of the phrase that you are practising. And if you want to take this one step further, you could create an entire mind map of the piece you are learning.  This way of visually encoding the notes is one of the best ways to memorise music and avoid memory lapses.  So often, people try and memorise music through repetition, and whilst that may appear to work in the practice room, it often doesn’t under pressure

My final tip is something that I would highly recommend you do, regardless of whether you can practice with your instrument or not.

13. Mentally Practice

Research has now shown that you can make almost the same amount of progress through mental practice alone as you can when physically practising.

When you practice a musical instrument, the parts of the brain that control the fingers get bigger, and when you mentally practice, almost the same amount of growth take place as if you’d have physically practised the notes.  And that for me is mind-blowing.

You can do mental practice anytime, anywhere.  It’s also a great thing to intersperse into your physical practice sessions.  If something isn’t working the way you want, stop and do some mental practice.

The ability to practise mentally is what often separates the great from the good. In the world of golf, there is no better champion of the mental game than Tiger Woods. He practised every shot mentally, both on and off the green. It’s become the norm amongst the world’s leading sportspeople that mentally rehearsing their strokes, the game, and their own emotions is all part of becoming a success. 

It’s not only sportspeople who use mental practice to get ahead. Musicians such as Rubenstein, Horowitz and Geeserking supported mental practice.

There is an overwhelming amount of research which shows mental practice works. The world of science now has the scanners and data to prove that when you mentally practise something in a multi-sensory way, the same neurological changes happen – to almost the same extent – as they would if you were to practise physically.  

Mental practice produces fundamental changes and genuine improvements. However, it’s a skill that you need to practise. Mental practice is not the same as imagining yourself playing the notes, reading through the score, or picturing the notes. It has to involve all of your senses.

You must mentally visualise how it feels and sounds when playing those notes. You have to think about the notes, rhythm, articulation, phrase shapes, muscle movements, environment, posture, keys or strings feel to touch, and how each note sounds. Hence, it’s no wonder that, as a learner, you may yet have experienced the true benefits of mental practice. 

Most of us are no strangers to daydreaming, and many of us will have indulged in imaginary play as children. Any time you go through the motions of something inside your head, you are mentally practising.

To reap the benefits on your instrument, you have to incorporate regular mental practice into your practice regime. While mental practice is no replacement for physical practice, it is a fantastic way to make progress when you cannot get to your instrument.

Mental practice also has another benefit: it increases memory retention and performance delivery. Research has also shown that a combination of mental and physical practice is the best way to make progress.

You can watch a video presentation of this post below.

To conclude, practising music without your instrument doesn’t have to be a hindrance to your progress. You can continue improving your musical skills by utilising the various techniques and exercises from this post, even when you can’t physically play.

From rhythm exercises and finger coordination drills to ear training and score analysis, there are countless ways to engage with music away from your instrument.

Additionally, don’t underestimate the power of mental practice, which has been shown to yield significant progress and neurological changes in the brain. Incorporating mental practice alongside physical practice can enhance your performance and memory retention.

So, embrace these alternative practice methods, stay consistent, and watch as your musical abilities flourish even when your instrument isn’t at hand. Keep practising, keep growing, and enjoy the journey of music.

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