As a music teacher, one of the most common questions I get asked is about practice – including ‘how long should I or my child practice for?’ and ‘how do I motivate them?’.
There’s not a ‘one size fits all’ for either question – we all have different personalities and what works for one person might not work for another. I’ve got students who like having a practice routine or making lists, for example, but also those who much prefer to be more spontaneous. It’s working out the best approach for the individual.
So here are my general top ten tips:
Let’s not call it practice. It sounds much better (and less like a chore) if you call it ‘playing‘ – and playing music is always fun.
Practice (or playing!) is definitely about quality not quantity! You could decide on a fixed amount of time to play each day, but if your mind isn’t on the task, or you are clockwatching, are you really going to improve? Far better to spend 5 minutes of focused time rather than an hour of mindless repetition.
It’s much better to set yourself a goal. It could be to work on that tricky section which always trips you up or to play that scale with no wrong notes. It doesn’t have to be a big goal either – little ones always work best.
Playing the music through is not practice! But picking out sections of the music to really focus on is. Being able to play it without stopping is important – but save that until you have learnt it!
Try this! With your music in front of you, close your eyes, stand up and turn round, and then put your finger on your page of music. The bar you land on is where you should start practising from! Anyone can play from the beginning but if you know your piece really well you will be able to start from anywhere.
Repeating something until you get it right is useful. But make sure you are concentrating otherwise this becomes a waste of time. There’s no point repeating something over and over if it’s wrong. Really listen to what you are playing – and imagine what your teacher might say.
Have you ever tried sitting and really focusing on something – could be the washing machine going round and round or a tree branch swaying in the wind? After a while your mind starts to wander – perhaps thinking about what you’re having for tea or what’s on the TV tonight! The brain disengages after concentrating on the same thing for too long.
So how can you keep up the concentration? One of the most useful articles about practice that I’ve read is from the Bulletproof Musician who suggests mixing things up a bit in the practice room. Say you’ve been set a couple of pieces to learn and a few scales. Keep things fresh by moving back and forth between things. For example, you could practice the scale for a bit, then pick a random bar or two in a piece to work on, but then come back to the scale again, and so on.
Post-it notes are awesome! I have a rather large tin of colourful post-it notes sitting on my windowsill. I use these in lessons quite a lot (particularly around exam time) to remind students of things they might be forgetting in the music. Perhaps use post-its at home during practice time. You could write down the bars you find hard or specific things you might need help with in lessons.
On a similar note, you could even start a practice journal. It’s a great way of keeping track of what you are learning and it’s fun to look back and see how far you’ve come.
The pencil is a musicians friend! All players write on their music – whether beginners or professional musicians. I’ve played in orchestras where the music has all kinds of scribbles written on it to help the person reading it. So during a practice session feel free to write in finger numbers or circle things you tend to miss. Just don’t write in the note names – that’s an unbreakable law for my own students!!
In a practice race between the tortoise and the hare, the tortoise always wins! Slow practice is a must. Don’t dive in and try to play a tricky section at a super fast speed or you will trip up. Play slowly and get there gradually.
A week can be a long time between lessons. I’ve had students highly motivated by using practice videos and sending a recording of their playing midweek. It can be amazing how much engagement levels go up when they know their playing is being recorded!
So what are your top practice tips?