For Students: 10 Music Practice Tips

If you want to get better, you have to practice!

If you want to get better, you have to practice!

“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice!” You’ve heard that one, right? Well, it’s a truism that we shouldn’t forget as musicians. If you want to improve on your instrument, practicing is  90% of the process. (We’ll get into the other 10% later) So here are 10 music practice tips to make the most out of your practice time.

1. Set goals for your practice time

One of the least effective things you can do is go into your practice room and just sit down and start playing. In order to make the most of your time, you need to make a plan as to what it is that you need to and want to accomplish in that time. Do you want to memorize a piece? Do you need to figure out the fingerings of that melismatic passage in one of your pieces? Do you need to work on the breath stamina of a particularly difficult phrase? If you go into the practice room with a goal in mind, you will be focused and motivated to attain that goal.

2. Keep a practice log

Going along with the previous tip, when you set your goals, write them down and then when you are finished practicing, write down whether you accomplished your goal or not. If you didn’t, reflect on why. For more detailed instruction on the benefits of keeping a practice log, check out our recent article on the subject.

3. Break up your practice time into smaller increments

Your teacher may say that you must practice three hours a day. But that doesn’t mean that you have to lock yourself in a practice room for three hours straight! Practicing effectively requires concentration and focus and that can be very fatiguing. If you break that three hours into three 1-hour sessions, you will be more focused in each session and use your time more effectively. This is also instrument specific because whereas a pianist might have the physical stamina to play for two hours straight, that is not recommended for a singer.

4. Remember that practicing is NOT just about playing through your music

Yes, certainly there will be times when you are preparing for a performance and you need to play through your entire piece to check memorization and gain stamina. But in the process of learning and perfecting a piece, playing through your piece from beginning to end can actually hinder your progress. If you still have technical difficulties or memorization mistakes, by playing through your pieces you are simply ingraining those mistakes into your muscle memory. It will be twice as hard to get rid of those mistakes in the long run. Perfect small sections of your piece and then string a few small sections together to make a longer section.

5. Repetition is key

In order to break a habit, you need to do something the correct way 100 times. So every time you miss a note in that melismatic passage, you are going to have to repeat that passage the correct way 100 times! Break large passages up into smaller passages and repeat them correctly until they become part of your muscle memory.

6. Make sure your practice room is set up for effective practicing

You want your practice room to be free of distractions and set up with the tools you need to practice efficiently. Make sure it is quiet (without tv, computers, ipods) and at a comfortable temperature. Make sure the room has enough light. Turn off your phone so you are not tempted to check your messages and get calls. Make sure you have a metronome, pencils, a tuner (if you need one), a mirror, your music and technique books, your practice log, some water and any instrument specific accessories.

7. Warm up mindfully

Make sure that you always start your practice with warmups. But don’t just run through your exercises for the prerequisite amount of time while thinking about what you are going to have for dinner that day (or enter any random thought here). The purpose of warming up is not simply to get your muscles moving. It is in the warm up that your are solidifying your technique. You are preparing your body and your mind for the work and you must be “present.” Before you start an exercise remind yourself of why you are doing that particular exercise. As you go through the exercise, be aware of how you are feeling, how you are breathing, if your body is alerting you to tension, etc. Keep your mind in the game at all times – even through the tedious stuff.

8. Record yourself

By recording your practice sessions – audio and/or video – you can listen back and catch some things you may miss in the moment. Listening to yourself can help you find tone issues, watching yourself can alert you to tension issues that you didn’t know you had and much more. OK, I’ll let you break a part of tip 6….you can turn your phone on to record yourself. But don’t check your messages!

9. Remember that practicing isn’t just about playing your instrument

You need to practice your instrument but you must also practice your artistry and you must engage your intellect. That means that practice also involves listening to great artists perform your repertoire and analyzing what makes them so great. Practice involves studying the history and performance practice of a particular piece. Practice involves translating the text of a song and speaking that text with meaning in it’s original language. Being a musician is about much more than just learning how to play the notes. You need to add time every day on top of the time in the practice room to expand your knowledge of your music, your instrument and your artistry.

10. Practice something EVERY DAY

It is better to practice 20 minutes every day that 2 hours on only one day of the week. If you can’t put in three hours every day, that is fine. But commit to working on your instrument, even if one day you only warmup and don’t touch your repertoire, every single day. That consistency will pay off!

If you really want to take your practicing to the next level, you need to read an excellent book by Gerald Klickstein called, The Musician’s Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance and Wellness. Check out our expert review and then buy the book!

So what other practice tips do you have? Let us know in the comments below.

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12 Responses to For Students: 10 Music Practice Tips

  1. Sometimes, for me, getting students the music they want entails me transcribing a particular pop song for them, that involves a lot of decisions for me about trying to be true to the original melody so the students can play along with the track (key, rhythm, register, etc) or transpose the piece to an easier key and with a simplified rhythm which will enable them to play it more easily. Sometimes giving them a very difficult transcription which is clearly beyond their current abilities is an excellent motivator, and sometimes it isnt, every student is a unique individual who responds to a wide range of positive or negative reinforcements- some will rise to the challenge and work their butts off to be able to conquer the piece and some will curl up in a little tearful ball and quit. One parent came up with an excellent motivator for her daughter (who was a very commercially minded girl), she paid her $5 for every day that she practiced on her own for 30 minutes or more- but at the end of the week the child had to pay for her lesson herself. Pretty quickly the student realized that if she practiced 7 days a week she would be turning a $10 profit weekly, and promptly doubled her efforts at home. Everyone is different, and part of our job as teachers is learning what makes each pupil tick, and helping them develop good discipline which will reward them with a wealth of achievements, both in music and life. This is the way we do it at my studio, anyway…

  2. Marie Watson says:

    Regina, I like your tip about recording yourself. My daughter has been taking piano lessons for a few years and sometimes she starts to play through her music really fast, which causes her to miss some of the notes. I would imagine that having her record herself will help her hear some of the mistakes she is making so she can improve her skills.

  3. Lisa says:

    A software that enable you to accomplish the items listed above was just release in June called MyTractice. It is free and can be accessed on your desktop or smartphone.
    I stumbled upon it by chance and my friends are now using it too. The site is

  4. Reaghan says:

    This helped me by remembering that if you practice everyday than it will help you improve. Also by recording myself and listening back at it was a good idea because it showed me what to work on.

  5. John Samuel Jackson says:

    *Warm-up mindfully*

    Warming up correctly will really improve your endurance, sound, and ability to play as accurately as possible. When I went to VBODA All-State Auditions I can’t tell you how many people I saw walk in and immediately start racing through their etude. They didn’t play a scale or anything. Coming back from audition I noticed that the people who didn’t warm-up were struggling to play their high notes. This happened because they blew their chops by playing “cold” rather than warming up and getting the blood flowing into their lips.

    When you enter your practice room, take a couple of minutes to warm-up. Here’s a couple things that I do before playing:

    1) blow raspberries without a mouthpiece
    2) rollercoaster buzz on the mouthpiece
    3) play soft and really low peddle tones
    4) play a couple of scales
    5) play music

  6. Dillon Longnecker says:

    I always find that when I can’t get a rhythm right, it helps to repeat it and sometimes even split it up into smaller portions until I eventually can put it all together and get it right.

  7. Emily Heske says:

    I’ve been doing the songs called Fere Jacques, Ode To Joy and My Dreidel during my own violin lessons.

  8. Emily says:

    Setting Goals helped me to focus on the parts of my piece that needed the most work, even though they weren’t the most fun to work on.

  9. Joaquin McGeorge says:

    I practice ever day to get better at drumming

  10. Joaquin McGeorge says:

    I love to drum

  11. Jimbo Al says:

    I like piano and I picked that I will do piano every morning.I play some favorite songs like for Elise Gurenge and smooth criminal. I hope I can be better. and I always exhale when I do sports like swimming and golf. so i exhale also when i do piano.

  12. Janet says:

    Thanks for this. Really helpful for this 74 year old flute player who joined a band and an orchestra at the same time!

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