Music practice plan: a step-by-step guide to set you up for success

Forming a music practice plan can seem overwhelming and a waste of time, but a goal without a plan is just a wish.  If you want to save time and make better progress the devil is always in the detail which is why I’ve put together these step-by-step instructions to make your music practice schedule easy to plan.

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Why a music practice plan is essential for success

If you’re serious about improving your skills as a musician, planning your practice sessions is a must. It’s easy to get bogged down in the details of technique, theory, and repertoire, but without a real plan, you might find yourself ambling along without any real focus or direction. 

By taking the time to plan out your practice sessions in advance, you will get more focused and intentional about your actions. In this post, I’m going to share why you might be putting up resistance to planning your music practice, and some tips to set up for success when planning practice.  And then, I’ll share my step by step guide for you to follow so that you can set yourself up for success right from the get-go when you start learning a new piece.

And make sure to grab your FREE guide on how to make a music practice plan.  The links in the description below. It includes examples for both beginners and advanced players, plus a practice plan template for you to use when planning your next piece to learn.

Reasons you might resist music practice planning

Before I look at how to plan your music practice sessions, I want to share a few reasons why you might be putting up some resistance to making a  practice plan, because if you don’t address these you are unlikely to succeed.

Lack of Time

One of the most common reasons people resist planning their music practice is a perceived lack of time. Many people lead busy lives and feel like they don’t have enough time to dedicate to practice. However, planning music practice can actually help people manage their time more effectively by creating a set schedule and prioritising practice time.

 Whilst the short term gain may not seem as fruitful as when practicing physically, you’re much more likely to achieve your practice goals if you plan your sessions in advance.

Fear of Failure

Another reason people resist planning their music practice is the fear of failure. People worry that they won’t be able to meet their goals or that they will make mistakes during practice. Hence if you don’t set yourself any goals you can’t fail.

Lack of motivation

Sometimes, people resist the planning stages of practice simply because they lack motivation. Without a clear sense of purpose or direction, it can be difficult to stay motivated and committed to a practice routine.  

You might not yet see, the value in planning.  It’s often not as much fun as the physical practice , and it can seem tedious if you frame it in that way.  Yet if we tell ourselves that by planning our practice sessions properly in advance we’ll master that piece quicker, we are more likely to see the value.

Procrastinating Over Planning

Procrastination is a common challenge that many people face when it comes to planning their music practice. You may feel overwhelmed by the prospect of creating a practice plan or worry about how much detail to include.

Before diving into my step by step guide, here are a few tips to help you plan your music practice.

Tips for Planning Your Music Practice

Smart goal infographic

1. Set Realistic Goals

When planning your music practice, it’s important to set realistic goals that you can achieve. Start with small, achievable goals and gradually increase the difficulty as you improve. This can help you stay motivated and avoid getting overwhelmed.

2. Create a Schedule

Create a schedule for your practice sessions and stick to it as much as possible. This can help you stay organised and ensure that you have enough time to practise everything you need to work on. It’s also worth sharing your practice schedule with other people that you live with, so they no that you are busy during these times.

Blank grid with practice schedule

I also recommend putting a copy in your practice diary and setting some notifications on your mobile to remind you.  This is particularly helpful for those who have good intentions but don’t always see them through.

3. Focus on Specific Skills

When planning your practice sessions, focus on specific skills and techniques that you want to improve. This can help you make the most of your practice time and ensure that you’re making progress towards your musical goals.

Scales practice chart and notebooks

4. Track Your Progress

Keep track of your progress over time by recording your practice sessions or using a practice journal. This can help you identify areas where you need to focus your efforts more and give you a sense of accomplishment as you see your progress over time.

5. Enables a higher level of thinking

Reviewing and planning your practice sessions involves a lot of higher order thinking, which helps you consolidate your goals and level of progress. When you write things down, you’re more likely to process your actions, discover opportunities for improvement and see the results of your efforts. Based on this, you can take more focused action in the future.

6. Keeps you motivated

Practising can be frustrating, and you’ll undoubtedly have peaks and troughs in your levels of success. When the chips are down, looking through your practice diary can help you realise how far you’ve come and where there are opportunities to make improvements.

7. Record of the past

We would all like to think that we can remember things, but the reality is that even our biggest achievements can get lost in our minds. A practice diary is an invaluable insight into your musical journey. Reading through your achievements can often enhance your level of self-trust and belief.

So if you’re ready to take your music practice to the next level, it might be time to start planning!

DOWNLOAD your Guide on how to make a music practice plan here

Get started making your practice plan

Step 1: Schedule your practice sessions

Write down when you are going to practice. Ideally, as a beginner or intermediate player, you want to do two sessions per day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

An image of a clock with 20 minutes on it.

Keep practice sessions to twenty minutes, and don’t be tempted to extend them.  There are reasons for this which go beyond the scope of this video,  but for now, know that Short practice sessions are a great way to improve skills and build habits because they work with the natural limitations of our brain’s attention and memory. 

Studies have shown that our ability to focus and retain information decreases over time, with optimal focus time ranging between 20-30 minutes. By breaking down practice sessions into shorter time frames, we allow our brains to stay engaged and focused, leading to more effective practice sessions.

Step 2 – Annotate your score

Before learning any piece of music make sure to spend time annotating your score and do some research on the composer. Professional musicians almost always make notes on their score before attempting to practice the notes.

Step 3 – Answer the following questions

Note- Some of the following questions may be a little challenging if your theory knowledge is limited, if that’s the case don’t stress, just do your best and think about taking a theory course.  I have a fantastic one for beginners called Music Theory in Practice, which has different levels depending upon your knowledge.

Remember, done is better than perfect and if you get stuck- celebrate because you are now more aware of something you need to focus on.

Here’s an example of the questions to ask. I’ll use a short section of a piece called Canzonet.

Sheet music

Q1. What does the title tells you about the character or mood of the piece.  

A canzonet is a short song which has a light and airy character.

If the title is generic such as Waltz, write down the style’s characteristics and whether the music will have a particular structure.

Q2. What key is the piece in, and does it changes at all?

Sheet music with key information

Canzonet is in the key of C major as it has no sharps or flats in the key signature, and bar 1 is the tonic chord.

Q3. What are the notes of the chords I, IV, and V in this key? 

These chords are likely to be the most commonly used in the piece and the melody will probably be based on the notes from these chords. In my example the key is C major, so chord I is CEG, chord 4 is FAC and Chord 5 is GBD.  If you look at the music, you’ll see that it only uses notes from these chords.

Q4. Are there any scales and arpeggio patterns in the music? If so, in which bars do they occur? 

Sheet music marked up with colour

You can see in bar 5 where my pink box is, there’s a c major arpeggio and then it’s followed by a C major scale which I’ve marked in green. 

Now you’ll often find that the music doesn’t contain a complete scale, it could just be five notes, but it’s still worth making a note of so that you can practice these patterns as part of your warm-up routine.

Q5. Are there any phrases or sections of the music that repeat?  

So often, music is repeated and if you are aware of this, it cuts down your workload. In Canzonet there’s a repeat sign, so it’s obvious, but this is often not the case, so study your music carefully.

Q6. How many phrases are there to learn, and what bar numbers each phrase begins and ends on? 

So I’ve got two phrases to learn here, bars 1-4 and bars 5-8.

Q7. What is the time signature of the piece, and what does that mean?

So I’d make a note that this piece is in two-four time, so there are 2 crotchet beats or 2 quarter notes per bar.  It’s a duple time signature, so the metre will be a strong beat followed by a weak beat.

Q8.What performance directions are in the piece? Make a note.

These are the dynamics, Italian terms, tempo indications etc.  So the piece is Andantino which means it’s slightly faster or in some cases, slightly slower than Andante, probably around 80 bpm.  

Sheet music marked up with colour

The music is marked cantabile, which means in a singing style, and there’s a rit in bar 8, so I need to slow down.  The piece begins mezzo forte meaning quite loud, I need to get louder or crescendo when I play the arpeggio in bar 5 and get softer when playing the descending c major scale.

You can see that I write down my answers in a descriptive way as this helps form stronger cognitive connections with the music.

Q9. How will you communicate the mood or character of the piece?

In this example, I’d write something along the lines of – I need to make sure the melody has a bright sound and is well balanced with the left hand.  The legato touch must be smooth, as if I was singing the notes, and there needs to be a feeling of simplicity.  I’ll need to take care not to clip the ends of phrases as that would detract from the gracefulness of the piece.

Q10 Are there any particular challenges in the piece? 

You want to get specific here, so think about intonation, balance, fingering patterns, coordination, difficult rhythms etc. and make a note of them all.

Creating your Music Practice Plan

Now you’ve noted the challenges, the next step is to create some warm up exercises that will help you overcome these.  I have a video that goes into more depth on that, so if you need help, you can watch it here.

With all this information, you can now put together a practice plan. Divide your piece into bite-size sections- I usually suggest one phrase or 4 bars per day and I like to colour code the phrases using my traffic light system.

I mark challenging bars (the ones which will require focused practice) in red. Bars that I can sightread slowly but not up to speed are in Yellow and the easy bars I’ll mark green.  

I like to start with the most challenging bars first when I form my practice plan, that way the learning curve will be downhill rather than uphill which is always more motivating.

Write down which phrase and warm-up exercise you will practice in each session. Then make a note of what you will do in each session to make progress.

Learn more about what to write down for each practice session here.

You can watch a video presentation of this post below.

I’m going to cover what to write in your practice diary at the end of your sessions and how to measure your progress in next week’s post.  As of right now I would love you to take action and create a music practice plan for the next piece that you will be learning.

Don’t forget to grab your free guide on How to make a practice plan.  The guide will help you get started and includes examples of practice plans for beginner and more advanced players.

Remember it doesn’t have to be perfect, just give it a go.  And if you are likely to procrastinate, set a timer for 15 minutes and do the best that you can in the time available. 

Start by answering the questions I suggested above, and then divide the piece into bite-size sections you can allocate to each day.

Spending quality time making a practice plan is invaluable, so if you find yourself doubting the process, remind yourself of the benefits I mentioned earlier.

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