July 12, 2021

Tips for Practicing Your Instrument

Practice Your Instrument



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Have you ever struggled with practicing your instrument? Do you need tips for practicing your instrument? Worry not because today we will discuss some strategies that you maybe overlooking.

It is important to understand that one person’s ideal practice session may look quite different from another. Depending on your goals, energy, structure, time allotment, and focus, these elements will determine if you have a satisfying practice session or not.  

Structural Considerations

How to start and end a practice session is important. What is more important to you? Feeling good at the beginning and ends of your practice time? For example, you could start with scales and end with a review of something that you enjoy playing. Others may consider jumping into the meat of what needs to be improved. Could you leave a practice session knowing you had worked on something difficult the whole time and had limited success?

Another consideration to reflect on is what order do you want to work on things? Maybe your routine is especially important to you, and you treat a practice session almost like a to-do checklist. In contrast, maybe you are a person that needs to practice in a way where what you do feels new and refreshing. For example, you may vary the order or practice components you do from day to day.

Most musicians I know recommend that you dedicate a certain amount of time to different components of playing. For example, start with a five-minute warm-up, followed by ten-minutes on etudes, then ten-minutes on a new piece and then followed by something that you enjoy playing. The choice is yours. Even when you decide to practice in a way that is less efficient, you learn what does not work and you can try something new the next day. I, personally, learned this the hard way during the late night, multi-hour practice sessions before the day of college trombone lessons.

Ultimately, the clearer you set your musical goals the easier it will be to practice effectively. Be sure that you can distinguish between your short-term, mid-term and long-term goals. An example of these would include:

  • Your short-term goal could be to memorize a piece of music or play a selection of 16-measures 15 times through without making a mistake.
  • For your mid-term goal you could master a particular method book or play a series of solos.
  • And for your long-term goal you could join an elite band or play a solo recital by the end of the year.

Practicing Technique

Improving your tone, increasing muscle control speed and learning a new piece does not happen by putting the instrument to the face. Practicing efficiency plays a key role in meeting your goals.

One way of improving your technique is to break down a technique goal into several smaller goals. For instance, say your larger weekly goal was to learn a piece in a week. Break this down into smaller chunks as goals. For instance, Monday I will master measures one through eight, Tuesday nine through sixteen and so on. This way you will have a series of smaller successes everyday rather than one a week.

Practice Slowly

Another way of practicing technique is to take a piece and break it into sections. These would include several bars that focus on a specific type of a skill. While focusing on this skill be sure to practice these specific measures everyday so that the skill is gets regular, repetitive practice.

The benefit to lots of repetition is that the mind stores the skill into your long-term memory bank. Unfortunately, this is a two-edged sword. The reason for this is because if you are practicing and some of your technique is incorrect or if you let the wrong notes occur when you practice, this will be stored in your memory banks. Consequently, you can only expect to perform as well as you have practiced. Commit this to memory because if you want a stellar performance, you must practice in a stellar capacity.

Some experienced music educators may recall the “five or ten” rule. This is when you or your students are advised to move on to the next section only if they can correctly play the current section correctly five to ten times without a mistake. Others may not be concerned with this concept if the final performance is correct. Regardless, the “five or ten” rule is beneficial in your practice session because it reinforces the idea that your fingers “remember” to move at the right times.

Probably one of the most used strategies for improving technique is to “slow down.” Often, players will attempt to play somewhat difficult music and will fail to play the music completely correct five times in a row, if at all. As most music directors do in rehearsals, they take the time to slow things down. In some cases, really slowing things down is necessary.

Use a metronome and significantly slow down a passage so that there are no mistakes. Focus on correct notes, rhythm, pitch, and tone to this ultra-slow tempo. Now that this can be done five times in a row without any mistakes, very slowly bring up the metronome tempo by a couple clicks. Little by little be critical of every musical element and bring up the tempo. Eventually you will be able to play to tempo with all the musical elements mastered.

Practicing a New Piece

There are a variety of ways for learning a new piece of music. This goes beyond learning small chucks of music and then repeating them until your fingers fall off.

To start, consider learning a piece of music as a new challenge. The actual skill of improving and learning a work of art on the spot can and will improve over time if you subject yourself to regular sight-reading. Remember this skill can be practiced at the advanced or beginning levels, so make it a point to include sight-reading into your practice routine.

Sheet music

As mentioned before, getting into the habit of playing correct notes the first time leads to more effective practice. One way to improve this qualitative experience is to listen to a new piece prior to playing it. This could be through digital, cd or any other means. In fact, make it a point to play a piece live on your instrument for your students.

In addition, you can enhance this experience by reading along in the music while a recording of the music is being played. This gives you and your students the opportunity to check out various accidentals, repeats, dynamics, and other roadmap indicators prior to sight-reading the music.

As a music educator, it would also be wise to take advantage of the opportunity to teach your students the piece’s musical form. Perhaps you can provide history about the composition, provide insights about the composer, or even comment on the social and cultural factors that influenced its production.

If you have a class of beginning musicians, it may be wise to learn a piece in steps. You can start by first counting and clapping the rhythms in the piece. Then when the rhythm is worked out, try playing the melody without focusing heavily on the rhythm. Next, you would, very slowly, combine the two skills. Separating these major musical components at first and then bringing them back into the “big picture” by combining the skills is a practice strategy used by all levels of musicians.

Ultimately, at one time or another you will come to the “trouble spots” in a piece. Some people will decide to play through a piece and others will try to fix these trouble spots as they go. This maybe more helpful when you are still going through the process of becoming familiar with the piece. Whereas others may try to identify where the tricky locations are in the piece first and then try to correct them prior to playing the music in its entirety.

Note, that there are some trouble areas that will continue to frustrate you and it may seem that your efforts may be a huge waste of time. Consider determining what is the true cause of the frustration rather than using a huge amount of time pounding out a section of music. This could be a fingering issue, rhythm issue or even a note that is just outside of your range. Once you have truly determined what the real issue is, then alter your way of thinking so that you can brainstorm the questions and solutions to resolve the real issue at hand. This process can be aided by the support of a music teacher, however, is also commonly discovered on the musicians own efforts when they are in right frame of mind.

Memorizing New Music

Whether or not a student should memorize music is up in the air. Some music teachers live by this philosophy where others feel it is optional.

Let us first identify why someone would feel memorizing a piece is important.

  • Firstly, by memorizing a piece of music it should make you feel like you are becoming a better musician. The rationale behind this is since if you have a piece of music memorized then you do not have to focus on reading it. Ultimately, if this focus is freed up then you can focus on more of the musical elements like tone, dynamics, and style. 
  • By memorizing your music, it makes you appear more professional. Many professional soloists memorize their music, and this is an associated perspective you may want to be a part of.
  • An additional benefit to memorizing your music is that it also gives you the opportunity to see what is physically happening with your fingers or your embouchure in a mirror.

Next, lets identify why someone would not want to force student musicians to memorize music.

  • First, having a student memorize their music for a performance adds a lot or unwanted stress.
  • Often students worry about the “what if” scenario forgetting their piece. This unwanted anxiety often takes away the positive and musical energy that would normally be used to enhance the musicality of the piece.
  • Finally, students who are not good at memorizing music often spend way too mucg time on making a difficult task barrable. As a result, often this time is used practicing the structural components of the music rather than focusing on what the student really needs to do to make the music aesthetically pleasing.

Tips for Memorizing Music

If you insist on memorizing your music the following are tips and tricks for doing so in a variety of ways.

  • Memorize a piece of music as you learn it. Remember if you cannot play the piece of music correctly, you are not doing it right.
  • Memorize in short sections at a time.
  • Focus on memorizing the hard sections first.
  • Try memorizing the piece starting from the back to the front. This way you end up creating a good last impression.
  • When memorizing music try to use the honor system. Play the piece memorized and only look at the music when you absolutely must.
  • Analyze and study a section of music using the step-by-step method. This approach adds layers of musical nuance to your practice efforts and helps you memorize music from a visual and kinesthetic perspective.
  • Memorize your piece away from your instrument. Try playing or singing through your piece with an imaginary “air” instrument. Just imagine how good some of those “air guitarists” are out in the world.
  • Try creating a story that follows the stylistic traits of the musical piece.
  • Remember that slow practice and repetition are always great tools for memorizing a piece.
  • When you think you are almost done memorizing the piece, put the notated music away. Then play your piece. Sometimes muscle memory and the subconscious mind fills in the blanks that you can’t remember.

Final Thoughts

Learning how to practice and what works for us is a challenge that all musicians encounter at some point in our lives. What works for you one week may not a month later. It is important to evaluate your practice efficiency and then re-evaluate it again and again. Hopefully, you can pull some helpful tid-bits of information out of this post that will help you master your musical domain.

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