Although investing a great number of hours into your chosen instrument is crucial, the quality of that practice time is just as important. According to the leading authority in the psychology of expertise, K. Anders Ericsson, it is ‘deliberate’ practice that causes significant improvement, rather than mindlessly going through familiar motions. It is often much more beneficial to do twenty minutes of deliberate practice with a clear intention than it is to play aimlessly for an hour. With that in mind, here are eight practice techniques that I use in every lesson with my students and in my own practice, which will improve the efficiency of your learning and save valuable time.
1. Reverse Pendulum / Crab Walk
This technique involves identifying and honing in on a particularly tricky bar or group of notes, slowly and accurately repeating that part until you can play it more confidently, then adding in notes (or groups of notes) from either side of the original bar until you can play the whole phrase without stumbling over the tricky part. You can think of it like a pendulum that starts swinging over a small area, then gradually increases its span (in reverse of a real pendulum’s action). Alternatively, you might prefer the crab analogy: the tricky bar is your ‘crab bar’, and you gradually add in notes from either side, like a shuffling crab. Either way, this technique is great for targeting troublesome spots and then easing them back into their original context.
2. “To Me, To You!”
The Chuckle Brothers (clumsy icons of 90s UK kids’ TV) have finally managed to make themselves useful by inspiring the name I’ve given to this technique, as I think it perfectly describes the passing back and forth motion between two chords or notes that need a little extra attention. Identify a difficult chord change or transition between two notes (this might be a large or unusual interval leap for a wind instrument), and slowly and thoughtfully alternate between them. Which fingers don’t need to move? Which fingers do move? Which direction do they need to move in, and how far will they travel? In most cases, you won’t need to move as much as you initially assume. The goal here is to repeat the motion accurately until it feels natural, in order to build muscle memory.
3. Tortoise, Human, Cheetah
If you are struggling to achieve the desired speed of a piece of music, use this technique to reach your goal. First, find the speed at which you can accurately play the piece (or passage) – this may seem almost painfully slow, but that is fine. Now, using a metronome (there are loads of free metronome apps, or you can search for free online metronome sites), increase the speed by just five beats per minute. If you can play through accurately at this new tempo, increase by another five beats per minute, and so on. When you start to stumble over your fingers and lose accuracy or flow, take it back down a notch and play through at that comfortable speed before trying the faster tempo again. You will eventually reach your goal without having lost any accuracy. The reason that I recommend only increasing the speed by about five beats per minute each time is because this is a small enough change to be barely noticeable at first, while still challenging your fluency and allowing you to build up to your desired tempo. This has been very effective when I’ve used it with students of all ages.
4. Play, Look Away, Play
This is both a memory test and a spatial awareness exercise. Play a small section through, then look away from both your fingers and the music (or close your eyes) and try to play the same part through again. Do you know exactly which fingers should be moving and to where? Identify any movements that are difficult to judge the distance of (e.g. larger leaps) and practice them mindfully a few times before attempting them again without looking. This is especially useful for pianists as it helps you to know where you need to focus your attention at different times, as you can’t possibly look at both hands and the music all at once.
5. Strip Back, Zone In
If one particular musical element is giving you trouble (e.g. the rhythm) strip back all the other elements (e.g. pitches and dynamics) so that you can zone in on the aspect that needs attention. To zone in on the rhythm of a section, you may put your instrument down for a few minutes and focus on clapping or tapping instead. You can speak the rhythm by counting it out loud, or perhaps pick one note to play it on. When that element is sorted, add the others back in to test it.
6. Chunking And Naming
This is great for breaking a task down into manageable parts, and for helping you to recognise patterns. In psychology, ‘chunking’ is an effective memorisation technique that involves grouping certain objects or ideas together in order to make them easier to recall. In music, if you notice that all the notes in one bar belong to the C major chord, you can mentally group them together. Then, instead of having to remember all of the bar’s notes individually, you only need to remember the chord they all belong to, which should be enough to remind you of the contents of the bar. When learning new pieces with students, I like to give names to each phrase when appropriate in order to aid the learning process. For example, if the first phrase begins with an ascending five-note scale, I might refer to it as the ‘climbing phrase’; if another phrase contains a series of dotted rhythms, I might call it the ‘bouncy bit’, or if there is a series of quick notes I might call it the ‘twiddly bit’. You don’t need to use serious or technical names here – you just have to pick features that are easy to identify and remember. Now, rather than having to remember a stream of individual notes, you just need to remember that you start with the ‘climbing phrase’, followed by the ‘bouncy bit’ and then the ‘twiddly bit’!
7. Seven In A Row
The purpose of this exercise is to start to build muscle memory, and to make sure that you have mastered a particular section. Isolate a group of notes that are challenging, and aim to repeat them seven times in a row at a manageable tempo. If you can’t manage seven successful attempts in a row, slow down a little and try to pre-empt any common errors as you try again. If you can perform seven consecutive accurate repetitions, you should be at the stage where you don’t need to think so hard about the movements, and the section should feel a little more natural.
8. Boxing Up
This is where you draw boxes around musical phrases in order to very clearly visualise a piece’s structure. Colour coding is really useful here – sometimes I put boxes of the same colour around recurring phrases to show related material, and other times I will use a different colour for boxes in each section of the piece (e.g. on a lead sheet for a pop song I might use blue boxes for the intro, green for the verses, yellow for the choruses, etc.). This is great for breaking pieces up into smaller identifiable sections to work on (e.g. you might notice that the second pink box needs some work), and it also gives students a visual overview of the form. Over time, you might notice patterns in how the pieces you have been studying are constructed, e.g. where and how a composer has repeated sections of their material. An additional benefit is that colours make sheet music look so much more appealing, and I welcome anything that adds cheer to practice sessions!
These are some of my most frequently employed practice techniques, although of course there are many more. Can you think of any? Do you already use some of these?
If you’re interested in reading more about effective practice and creating good habits, here are a couple of books I recommend:
- ‘Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice’ – Matthew Syed
- ‘The Power of Habit’ – Charles Duhigg