Music stand and clarinet

What I’ve Learned About Practice

When I was at school and having music lessons every week, I knew that I should be practising, but I was never really sure what constituted good practice, or how often I should have been doing it. It is only as an adult that I have discovered how to practise efficiently, through trial and error, learning from other musicians, reading books on the subject, and teaching my own students.

I thought it might be useful to put together a little compendium of tips that aid my own personal practice, for anybody who is looking for some guidance on the subject (and for myself to refer back to when needed!).

What is practice, and why should I be doing it?

When we practise, we are trying to form a habit. We are actively applying what we have learned with the goal of creating muscle memory; we want to teach our body how to perform a detailed task as if it was second nature, and we do this by repeating movements over and over again until we don’t have to think so hard about it any more. The more you repeat something correctly, the easier it becomes, and the better you get at it.

How often is best?

When it comes to practice, I’ve found that little and often is the way to go – this is far more effective than having just one long session per week. For a complete beginner, I’d recommend scheduling in four twenty to thirty minute practice sessions per week (you can build this up to practising every day over a couple of years as you progress). This way, you are more likely to remember and build on what you did in your lesson, and less likely to get tired or achy! (Also, you can psychologically trick yourself into practising by saying ‘I’ll just do five minutes’. Once you’re past the starting block, it’s easy to continue for longer.)

When is the best time to practise?

Make practice a habit by finding a regular slot for it in your existing routine. Some students find that it helps to associate practising their instrument with another activity that is already an established part of their daily life. For example, I have one student who practises the piano while her dogs eat! Another idea is to start practising while waiting for dinner to cook, or straight after watching a particular programme on TV. It doesn’t matter when you practise, as long as you stay consistent and the time works for you. (The idea of attaching a desired habit to an existing one is explained very well in the book The Power Of Habit by Charles Duhigg, which I found very informative and would recommend to anybody interested in the psychology of habit formation.)

Some General Tips

  • If you can, keep your instrument out and ready to play in a place that you will regularly see it. It is amazing how much of a difference this makes! Students who have easy access to their instrument tend to progress much faster than those who keep theirs tucked away in a room they aren’t often in – if it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind, making it more likely that you’ll forget to practise. (It’s also quite tempting to stop and play an instrument if you see it when walking past. Having my wind instruments out on stands rather than packed away in cases has been a game changer.)

  • When you sit down to practise, make sure you have a clear and specific goal in mind. Instead of thinking ‘I’m going to play for a while’, think ‘I’m going to improve the rhythm in the first four bars’, or ‘I’m going to work on the tricky part in bar ten so that I can play it at the same speed as everything else’. This is a far more efficient use of your time. (I recently heard a good analogy for this idea: think of practice like ironing a shirt. If you don’t manage to smooth out all the creases first time, it makes more sense to go back in only where the creases are, rather than iron the entire shirt again.) This is where your music notebook will come in handy – the lesson notes you or your teacher make in there can be used as practice goals, and you can write down what you worked on at home. This leads on to the next tip…

  • Make the most of your notebook by reading through your lesson notes when you practise. This is useful not only for goal setting, but also for tracking your progress. Learning an instrument is a long-term commitment that requires patience and consistency, and sometimes progress can seem frustratingly slow. Having a record of your learning can be an encouraging reminder of how much you’ve improved since you began, and show that you are on the right track. You can also write down anything you are unsure of so that you can ask about it in your lesson. (I still have my first notebook from when I was seven!)

  • Listen to a recording of the music that you are learning. We often don’t think to do this even though it might seem obvious. It’s much easier (and more enjoyable) to learn to play something if you are familiar with how it should sound. (This is easier than ever now with YouTube and streaming services, so make the most of them!) Another advantage of focused listening is that you get to hear the music in its intended context, whether that is in a concert hall, in a gig setting or as part of a larger band. You can pick up little tips from the performer such as phrasing and stylistic choices that may not have occurred to you alone.

  • If you are away from your instrument, you can still practise! Studies have shown that imagining yourself playing your instrument (thinking through the finger movements, for example, as an athlete might visualise their physical performance) can help musicians to improve even when their instrument is absent. Obviously, you should practise on your instrument if possible, but this is a great back up. (Other great activities in this category are drumming out rhythms on a surface or clapping the beat of a piece.) Here’s a link to a great video by Adam Neely that explains this in more detail.

  • In your practice session, include: a technical warm up (e.g. scales or finger exercises – especially good if they relate to your current pieces); focused work on the piece you’re learning; a piece you’ve already learned and enjoy playing; something just for fun, even if it’s just noodling around or making up your own little tune. Do these in whatever order you fancy.

The music I’m learning is difficult. How should I tackle it?

Here’s a step-by-step guide to mastering any tricky section.

  1. Identify the bits that are causing trouble, and isolate them.

  2. Slow the section right down to a speed you can manage it at (this may seem ridiculously slow, but that’s fine). The tortoise beats the hare every time!

  3. Think about the movement your hands have to make to get from one note to the next. How can you get to the next note with the smallest movement possible? If one movement is particularly hard, practise going back and forth between the two notes or chords until you are used to the motion.

  4. When you can play the isolated section well at a slow speed, start to speed it up very gradually in increments. If you start to trip up again, slow it back down and repeat it at the tempo you can manage.

  5. Now is the test – can you put the section back in context and play it correctly from a few bars before, or even the beginning? The trick to this is to start slow, even if you are able to play the earlier parts faster.

(See my post Eight Time-Saving Practice Techniques for more ideas to help master tricky sections.)

In A Nutshell…

  • Practice is about learning habits through repetition.

  • Practise little and often with clear and specific goals.

  • Find a time in your routine that works for you and stick to it.

  • Keep your instrument visible and ready to play if possible.

  • Use your notebook to track your progress.

  • Listen to the music you are learning!

  • Include a warm up, focus piece and something fun.

  • Use the step-by-step guide to tackle tricky sections.