Practicing is one of the best tools you can use to help you grow
as a musician.
However, there are both helpful and hurtful ways to practice your instrument! Incorrect practice techniques can actually be harmful to building your musical skills, or sometimes even physically harmful in the long run, if improper techniques or posture are practiced and incorporated. Here is a beginning list of music practice Do’s and Don’ts to help you develop healthy practice habits that will speed you on your way to becoming a more
accomplished and technically advanced musician!
1) Slow it down (if you can’t play it slow, you can’t play it fast!)
- Often when we practice, we are tempted to speed through our pieces, and sometimes the hard parts of these pieces, because it obscures our mistakes. However, the point of practice is not to obscure the mistakes, but to fix them. And so, slow the thing down! Turn on your metronome to however low you need it to perform the piece or excerpt 100% correctly. I am not exaggerating. Practice it as slow as you need to to get it entirely correct. When you’ve done it correctly 5 times, turn your metronom up a few clicks. Do that with no mistakes 5 times. Repeat until you are up to the marked tempo.
2) Identify the hard spots and isolate them
Almost all of the time, there are easier and harder parts to every piece we play. And while of course, you must be able to play the entire piece through, a good practice method is to isolate the difficult parts of it and just practice those to start with. Some parts may be as short as half a measure, or as long as an entire musical phrase or section. Some questions to ask yourself as you identify these parts are: Which spots am I
less confident? Which parts do I have to slow down? Which spots do I find myself stuttering over or stopping completely?
Once you find those spots, play them! Over and over again! Until you’re sick of them! Practice with a metronome, slowly, as discussed earlier. This kind of repetitive, often tedious practice is not the fun part of music. However, it is definitely necessary if you want to nail those hard parts, build your skills, and perform to the best of your ability. These hard parts are just challenges! Practicing these is what will help you grow as a
4) Use a metronome
- This is an easy one, and yet is so often overlooked. Now, this is significantly more important for ensemble musicians than for solo musicians. Ensemble players must develop a good sense of time, unless they intend to memorize all their music and watch the conductor at all times. Playing with an ensemble in good time of course involves listening as well as watching, but the best way to build the tempo into your music is to practice it with a metronome. This way it is easier to stay with the ensemble, and make tempo decisions as a group. Now, thus far we have just discussed ensemble playing. However, even with the solo license to mess with the tempo, any soloist must be totally aware of their temporal movement at any time, to appropriately employ tempo changes to create the wanted effect.
An easy way to get a metronome is on your phone! There are plenty of metronome apps if you don’t want to go out and buy one.
5) The boring exercises (long tones, scales, lip slurs)
- I know! They’re boring! I did label them as such! However, these are the exercises that are going to fine tune your skills. For example, if you’re a pianist, the scale fingerings and finger patterns are used all the time, in many different pieces! By practicing them, you’re making pathways in your brain to make the movements effortless, and easily used with speed in your future pieces.
- If you’re a wind player, these exercises are even more important. Long tones are a great way to test and practice lung capacity, as well as utilize musical expression. For example, how smooth can you make your crescendos or decrescendos? Can you make them steady, and smooth, increasing and decreasing volume like a ramp, instead of steps? How gently can you end your notes? How gently can you start them? These are all exercises that will help you build and exercise control over your playing,
in all registers.
- For brass players, lip slurs might be one of the most important exercises you can do. Flexibility and control between partials is a necessity as a brass player, and these exercises will help you develop both.
6) Warm up and cool down
- In the end, musical practice uses muscles and brain, just like any athletic practice. One of the best ways to maintain mental and physical health through your musical life is to treat those musical muscles with respect. For strings and piano, your arms, shoulders, and fingers need to be warmed up and limber before you launch into your most difficult pieces!
Start with scales, a fun memorized piece, or something else that’s easy. You could even do some simple arm and hand stretches! For winds and brass, your embouchure requires the same amount of respect! Start with long tones, buzzing, breathing exercises, or something else to get your lungs and lips working. And when you’re done practicing, end with the same! Let your muscles stretch out and cool down, as this will help them recover. That way, they will be recovered, healthy and ready for your next performance or practice session!
7) Record and listen to yourself
- A wonderful practice tool is a recording device. This can be your phone, a video camera, or a simple audio recording. When you are practicing, the sound waves actually vibrate in your head and body, which changes the way you hear your sound! By recording yourself, you eliminate that extra vibration, and you hear yourself as someone else would hear you. This way, you can hear things you might not otherwise, or sometimes, say “that wasn’t as bad as I thought!”
8) Be methodical
- In the end, the best way to practice is simply not to rush through it. Take your time, think about what you need to do, and allot the correct amount of time for each task. Even if you don’t have very much time to practice, correctly practicing one aspect of your music is better than incorrectly practicing all of it! If you practice the piece incorrectly, it is possible that you will build bad habits, which you then have to unlearn before you can relearn it correctly.
1) Speed through it
As you can see, these ‘don’t’ items are really just the unhealthy flip-sides of the ‘do’ items. By speeding through our pieces or difficult sections to make our mistakes seem smaller, we are really cheating ourselves out of musical growth. These hard parts and mistakes are just learning opportunities to increase our skills, and build good habits. By speeding through them, we are building bad habits, and not actually fixing the
problem, therefore not growing.
2) Run through the whole piece once and call it done
Unless you have this piece really under your thumb, there will probably be mistakes. It’s by isolating those difficult parts and fixing those mistakes that we learn the piece better, before putting them back into musical
context. Running through the whole piece, ignoring our mistakes, and then calling our practice done, is not actually fixing anything. In fact, it’s actually building your mistakes and bad habits into your performance of the piece!
3) Fluctuate in tempo
Changes in tempo should be utilized consciously! By changing the tempo, you actually change the music. You should always be aware when you’re changing the music! Whether you choose to or not is a decision you and your instructor must make, but use a metronome to build in good tempo habits, so you’re not changing the music itself unintentionally!
4) Jumpin cold
As we’ve discussed, your body uses your brain and your muscles to play music! To keep both of these things healthy, warming up and cooling down before and after music practice and performance is a great tool.
There it is! A beginning on how to develop healthy and helpful practice habits. Sometimes we have good days, and sometimes we have bad days, but the best way to get better is just to do it! And to do it in a good way. Happy Practicing!