Making Progress Through Effective Practice

What’s It For?

  • Why Practice? Making music becomes more fun and more fulfilling as you become more skilful. The better you can play or sing, the bigger the choice of music you can perform, and the wider range of groups you can join. The right practice at home makes music easier, so you can enjoy it more and express yourself better.
  • Have your own reasons for wanting to improve – perhaps a favourite piece that you’d like to play, a type of music you’d like to play, a group you’d like to join, a famous performer you’d like to emulate, or a career that you have in mind.
  • Practise is the name we use for the process of gaining new skills, so that music making becomes easier and more fun. The process takes effort and persistence and patience. And it’s rewarding when you notice that you are making progress – now making music in ways that were once impossible for you. We can introduce new ideas in lessons, and begin to nurture them. Then you control how quickly they develop in your practice sessions after the lesson.
  • What’s happening? The most rewarding and interesting musical skills take some time and repetition to get right, because they involve different bits of your brain and body working together in ways that they haven’t done before. (See the information on Benefits of Making Music here.) In practise sessions, you are developing the brain connections that you need.
  • Especially for parents. Your child will benefit from your support for their music learning. They may well need your help to maintain a helpful practice routine, and your encouragement when they are overcoming new challenges. They will certainly need you to take an interest and notice their progress. 

When to Practice

  • A little and often is usually best. Science has shown that frequent, focussed, calm, short practice sessions are much better than long, floundering, stressful ones. 
  • Timing. Have your first practice session shortly after your lesson, while new musical ideas are fresh in your mind. Go for many short practice sessions throughout the week, rather than one long panicky session on the night before your next lesson. Many people find it helpful to keep a regular, habitual practise routine, so that practise is something that just happens, rather than a special occasion when we remember. 
  • Make good use of your practice time. Focus on music making and learning throughout your practice session. It’s not helpful to be distracted by siblings, phone, X-Box, TV, pets, pizza, Alexa, etc.  They’ll still be there later.
  • If you want your next lesson to be even more fun and rewarding than your last one, then do some practice.  If you would prefer your next lesson to be less fun and rewarding than your last one, then don’t practice

Ideas for a Typical Practice Session

  • Have a plan of what you want to achieve in a practice session. Include things that you and your teacher have noted in your lessons.
  • Warm up with something that you can play easily. Focus on using great posture, correct technique, and making a beautiful sound.
  • Then work on something you want to be more skilful and confident in playing. Turn something tricky into something that’s easier. (Just repeating stuff you can already play isn’t practice.)
  • Try out new skills slowly and accurately. When they are secure, then try going faster.
  • Make it easier by making stuff automatic. Practise the most interesting chunks of the music, perhaps only a few notes at a time. Once you can play them automatically, link them together into longer pieces of music. Being able to play a tune automatically allows you to focus on how you play it: posture, tempo, articulation, phrasing, dynamics, listening, expression, storytelling, etc.
  • Explore, improvise and be inventive. Try out new musical ideas in different ways. How can you make your latest tune sound different – changing the dynamics, articulation, tempo or sound quality. How can you use that new skill in different parts of your instrument, or combine it with other ideas? How could you use your new skills to play an old piece even better?
  • Reward yourself after you have practiced something hard, with some playing just for fun, or some other enjoyable activity. 

Learning Through Practice

  • Confidence with the most useful rows of notes.  Lots of music is based on scales, and on a range of common rhythms. Becoming confident with these will make it much easier to read and play music. This is why scales and rudiments are a helpful part of your practice routine. It’s useful to review these building blocks of music occasionally. Keep it interesting by playing them a range of expressive ways, on different parts of your instrument, and at different speeds.
  • Your long term memory is improved each time you recall something afresh.  Do the recall more than once in a practice session. For example, practice a scale accurately and briefly several times during a session, turning your attention to other things in between. This is more effective than remembering it just once then playing it over and over for 15 minutes solid. 
  • Some skills will take more time to master than others. Sometimes you may even feel like you’re going backwards for a bit, especially when you’re combining new ideas or skills. Don’t panic! Keep going, and things will become easier. Be persistent and also patient with yourself.
  • Practice being a performer.  Give a mini concert to an imaginary audience, or to your family at home. Introduce your piece, play it right through, and take a bow at the end. This is great practice for concerts and exams.
  • Do compare yourself with how you were last week / last year, and with how good you want to be next week / next year.  You do not need to compare yourself with other people’s musical ability. There will always be someone whose skills might make you jealous, or who might be jealous of your skills, and these are rarely helpful comparisons.