Practicing Tips On Any Instrument

You have always heard the saying, “practice makes perfect”, but I have a better saying, 'perfect' practice makes perfect”. The actual amount of time does not always mean progress. More importantly is how the student practices that will help the student improve. In this article, I address specific things that help improve the student's practicing habits.

Students ages 4-6
For a young beginner student, I do not recommend "forcing" the student to practice at all. I know this goes against the grain of normal thinking, but there are reasons why practicing at that age should not be expected. First, the young student does not have the discipline, retention, or enough information TO practice for longer than a few minutes. By forcing the young student to practice for more than a few minutes, will only cause frustration and discouragement to both student and parents. What I DO recommend is to ask the student to "play” what they’ve learned in their lesson. The important thing is to keep music lessons fun and possitive. It’s also great to encourage their creativity by letting them explore on their instrument or voice (of course monitoring to make sure no bad habbits are being formed). As the young student takes weekly lessons, he/she will begin to learn and develop a skill to have enough information to have a normal practice (I address the practice length later in this article). This may take the young student six months to a year, depending on the student's age and pace. The discipline to practice is something that is learned, the same as learning the instrument itself.

Getting started for ages 7-adult
The most difficult part of practicing is getting started. Once the student is ready to begin a daily practice, here is what I suggest:

1. Keep the practice time realistic to the student’s age and level. Don’t expect a beginner student to practice for 30 minutes straight. It’s best to keep each practice session at short segments (15 minutes for a beginner), but keeping practices daily or even twice a day if a longer practicing time is desired. For example, if the goal is 30 minutes per day, the student can break it up into 2-15 minute practices, with a break in between. Once the student gets to the “tired” point, he/she is no longer retaining what is learned. By doing shorter practices often, will help the student learn quicker. The suggested practice lengths will differ for each student, depending on their age and level. For beginners between the ages of about 7-9, the normal length of practice I suggest is 15-25 minutes, for an older child or adult beginner, it may be 30-40 minutes, and for more advanced levels, it may be 1-2 hours. These are only suggestions, as each student may require more or less time before getting to their “tired” point.

2. Keep the instrument and practice area in a place where it’s easy to practice. The biggest barrier to practicing can often be getting to the instrument or area to practice. I suggest having the instrument in a place where it’s visible, as a reminder to the student to practice, and in a room that is easy to practice in. Make sure the room is free from clutter and noise, where it may be difficult for the student to practice. Any hindrances to practicing should be taken away.

3. Schedule the practice just like the lessons are scheduled. It’s easy to forget to practice with so much going on in the student’s life, so setting aside a specific time to practice helps the student remember, and will eventually be a part of the student’s daily life, just like taking the lessons, going to school or work, eating, etc. Each student needs to decide on the time that is best for them, but make it the same time every day to create consistency. For children, I suggest before/after homework, before/after dinner, etc, or even the same time as the lesson. For adults, this can be especially helpful, as life can get in the way, and before you know it, the week has gone by without practicing at all! For young children, the parents can make a chart where the student can check off after practicing, and a little reward of some kind can be given after practicing for the week. This is a great way to help small children want to practice.

4. No guilt for not practicing. This applies more to adult students than children. There will certainly be weeks where practicing was just not possible, or it just didn’t happen. When those weeks happen, don’t beat yourself up over it, as there’s nothing that can be done to change it, just look forward to the next week. Learning an instrument or voice is a marathon, not a sprint, and a week here and there of not practicing is not going to make a huge difference in the long run. Feeling guilty over not practicing will cause frustration and anxiety about the lessons, which is the last thing we want for the student.

5. Contact the instructor for questions. Often the “real” reason for not practicing is because the student may not understand what he/she is supposed to practice. It’s human nature to not face something that seems difficult. If the student does not understand the assignment, or unsure of what to practice, please don’t hesitate to contact the instructor and ask questions. I hire instructors that “love” to teach, and want to make sure the student understands what is being taught, so never feel like you’re imposing on them to ask questions. It may be a simple step not understood or missing, and clarifying that can make a huge difference in the student’s desire to practice that week.

Starting a new song
1. To begin, play the piece all the way through, no matter how many mistakes you make, so you become familiar with the song and where it’s going musically.

2. Divide your song in sections to learn. If you’re a beginner, your song will probably only be a few lines to just one page at most, for higher levels, you may have several pages to learn. Use your own judgment on how long of a section you would like to learn at a time. Since you’ve learned to practice in short segments, you may choose to only play the one section per practice, then at your next practice session, move on to the next section.

*I’ve often seen students start at the beginning of the song when a mistake is made, no matter where they are in the song. However, it's best to go back to where the mistake happened to correct it, rather than starting from the beginning of the song.

3. Once you’ve finished practicing all the sections, you can now play the piece in its entirety, however, there will always be sections that will give you more trouble than other parts. This is where spot practicing comes into play. Once you’ve determined the parts that give you trouble (this may be one measure, an entire line or several lines), determine to use your entire practice session to just go over that particular part, then work outward. For example, let’s say you have one measure that gives you trouble. Play that one measure repeatedly (at least 5 times in a row) until you feel more comfortable with it, then play the measure before and after the troubled measure, than play the entire line. Sometimes the problem is not just that part, but going into and out of that part.

*You should be able to start from ANY part of the song. If you can only play a piece from the beginning, you're playing by route, meaning by muscle memory, rather than by knowing the notes. It's good to "start" a practice from any particular point of the song to see if you can play from that point.

How to correct a learned mistake
What is a "learned" mistake versus an accidental mistake? A learned mistake is the same mistake you make evertime you play that part (could be one note up to a whole section). If not corrected, practicing can actually make the mistake worse. Here are suggestions on how to "UN'learn a learned mistake.

1. Highlight the mistake-the first step in correcting the mistake is to simply identify what it is the student is doing incorrect. Is the student going too far to a specific note, not far enough, or identifying the note or rhythm incorrectly, etc?

2. Delete the bad information-take the bad information out of your thinking process.

3. Input correct information-and finally enter the corrected information in processing that section(s) and practice that section(s) with the corrected information.

I have found when the student does these 3 steps (and in some cases, even after just doing the first step of identifying the mistake), it corrects the mistake instantly. I advise to follow the correction with “spot practicing” (which I describe in the following segment), and the mistake will completely disappear altogether.

Spot practicing for learned mistakes
1. Play hands separately-If one or both of your hands are difficult, take time to play each hand separately.

2. Play very very slowly-As a child, I wanted to play everything FAST, and never fully mastered certain parts of a song I struggled with. Only once I finally allowed myself to slow it way down and get every note was I able to play the entire song without "limping" through certain sections. Once you master it slower, increase your tempo each time you play the section until it's finally at the tempo needed for the song.

3. Play notes with no rhythm-If the notes are giving you trouble, play the notes without rhythm or steady beat. It could be the jump from one note to another that is challenging, so play those notes slowly and without looking at your hands, to help you "feel" the distance between notes.

4. Play rhythm with no notes-More often it is the rhythm that may be challenging, so play the rhythm with one note, counting out loud and with a metronome if needed.

5. Alignment practice (piano only)-This is the least often used, but the most valuable. If you can play each hand separately without a problem, but fall apart when playing hands together, play your hands together SLOWLY note by note in both hands without rhythm or steady beat, only moving to the next note when you figure out how far you need to go. Make sure to keep your hands "glued" to the notes, holding as long as needed, before moving to the next note(s) so you feel the distance. Playing the piano is all about connecting one note to the next.

Repeat troubled spots immediately
The sooner you go back and play the difficult spots again, the more you will retain. I call this “repeat before the glue dries”. Because there are different levels of retention, this is another reason why going back to the very beginning of a piece does not help you correct the errors or improve your playing. For most adults, you can remember the Pledge of Allegiance, because as a child you said it every day for years. So even now when you probably haven’t said it for a long while, you can still recite it. This is because you’ve learned it at a deeper level. Practicing a part over and over but doing it consecutively is the best way to retain what you’ve learned or corrected and sets what you’ve learned to that same deep level

Listen to yourself
If the student is currently taking lessons or has in the past, imagine your instructor is there with you when you practice and be critical of your playing the same as your instructor would, hearing his or her words in your head. I still hear my past instructors every time I practice, telling me things I know he would say if he were listening. I know that while you’re learning a piece it’s hard to also hear what you’re playing, but as you grow more familiar with the piece, you’ll be able to do that more and more. And another great way to practice is to record yourself. That is usually the last step I take when learning a piece that I’ll be performing, so I can hear myself better and critique my own playing. You may even want to circle those areas you need to work on (with pencil) on the music so you can remember or make notes.

Final step - PERFORMANCE!
When the piece is nearly ready for performance, try playing at a completely different tempo; if it's a slow song, play it at a faster tempo, if fast, play it slowly. If you can't play it a completely different tempo, you're in jeopardy of playing by route (muscle memory) rather than really knowing the piece. Another way of checking if you "really" know the piece, is start at different points of the song to see if you can play it from there. If you're unable to play from any point other than the beginning, it's not ready for performance. And of course learning the notes and rhythms is just the beginning of making music. The real part of making music is the dynamics (varying volumes and tempo), phrasing, and your interpretation of the music. This is where taking lessons really help you, so that you have an instructor listening to your playing and able to give you guidance on how to make the music become yours. Also recording and listening to yourself, as suggested above, is a great way to critique yourself to know if you're ready for that big performance.

To summarize, practice often in short sessions so that you are fresh and retain everything you’ve learned. When you’re learning a new piece, practice short segments of the piece in one practice session, and immediately repeat troubled areas. Listen to yourself when you sing or play and be your own instructor or hear the words of your instructor as you practice. Record yourself so that you can hear yourself better for your final critique. And lastly, add color, dynamics and your own feelings to make the music yours!