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Practice Tips That Will Get Your Playing to the Next Level

Musicians love playing shows. Practicing, not so much.

Now I don’t want to generalize. Sure, there are musicians that may enjoy practicing. But if you are sitting in front of a computer, which I’m sure many people do when they practice, you probably find yourself wandering off on google and social media channels, and before you know it, practice time is up.

If this sounds like you, the good news is, you’re not so different from everyone else. The better news is, there are effective ways to practice that will help you stay more focused. But keep in mind that the discipline to follow through comes from you.

Now here are a few tips to consider in building an effective practice routine.  

Set Goals for Your Practice

Before starting your practice, it’s important to set goals. You may aim to go through a set number of exercises or you may want to learn a song.

Your goals will keep you focused so you have a productive practice, but it’s also important to be realistic.

For instance, say you start out wanting to learn a specific song. You begin learning the song and realize it’s way harder than you thought it was.

If this occurs, you may want to set about learning the song at a slower speed. Or you may only want to tackle one part of the song at a time.

Songwriting can also be difficult. If you sit down committed to writing a song and inspiration doesn’t come, you may end up disappointed.

The point is, you always want to feel good about yourself after a practice and setting unrealistic goals can make you frustrated and unmotivated.

Start with a Good Warm Up

Warmups are essential for several reasons. They help your muscles get limber, so you are better able to tackle your exercises. They can also build strength and prevent injuries.

Most musicians have a set regimen of warmups and over time, these can become so routine, it’s easy to take them for granted. You may run through them without spending time to determine if you are doing them well.

Keep in mind that while warming up you should be getting ready for your practice, but you should also be working on your technique. If you are just rushing through warmups, you will get used to playing sloppily and this can set the tone for your entire routine and your technique in general.

If you find yourself playing sloppily while warming up, slow down until your notes sound clearer. Increase the speed when you are ready.

Keep a Practice Log

Your practice log should be used to help you keep track of what you accomplish each day. You can see if you reached your goals or not. If you were unable to reach your goal, you can reflect on why this happened.

Your log will also help you keep track of where you left off so you can pick it back up the next time you practice.

Logs can be kept on computers, in a notebook, or in any format you find convenient. You can use them to take notes, jot down checklists and stay focused on your practice routine.

Break Your Practice Into Segments

It’s advisable to plan practices in advance including different things to focus on. Here is an outline of how a lesson might play out. 

  • 15 minute warm up
  • 20 minutes learning something new or reviewing something you just learned
  • 20 minutes on technique
  • 20 minutes on theory
  • 15 minutes on ear training
  • 30 minutes on songwriting
  • 30 minutes learning a new song

How you break up your session is completely up to you. You also may choose to focus on some subjects one day and other subjects on another. It all depends on your goals and how much time you have to devote to practice.

How Often Should I Practice and How Long Should I Practice For?

The amount of time you take to practice also varies. Some musicians have hours a day to practice while others have just a few minutes.

Don’t be hard on yourself if you don’t always have enough time to practice. But if you do miss a day, try to make up for it if possible.

Even if you have ten minutes a day to practice, It’s important to make an effort. You will be surprised to find how much you can accomplish in a short amount of time.

Note, some warmups and technique exercises can even be done while you are watching TV or talking on the phone.

Be Critical of Yourself

Playing through your pieces, or other people’s music over and over may help strengthen up your hands, but it won’t do much good unless you are working on perfecting your technique.

Let’s say you are working on a difficult passage and you keep making the same mistakes over and over. Repetition won’t help. In fact, it may work to ingrain the poor technique into your muscle memory.

In these instances, you will want to slow down the song until you get it right. Then speed up gradually until you can play the piece correctly at full speed.

Repetition is Key

Once you can play a piece well, play it over and over. It may be somewhat boring but playing the same part repeatedly will ingrain it in your mind and your muscle memory and your skill level will improve.

Record Yourself

To determine how well you are playing a piece, it’s essential to record yourself. You may be surprised to find how many errors you’re making without realizing it.

Now we’re all about feeling positive about ourselves as musicians but recording yourself will give you a healthy dose of reality. Here’s a real-life example.

I personally never record myself, but I have played on recordings. I go ahead and do the track and think I nailed it. Then I listen back and what do I find? Sloppy playing, timing mistakes and more.

Being able to hear myself has made me a better musician but it would have been more effective if I took the initiative to record and listen to my playing before getting into the studio. It would save money and time as well as embarrassment!

Play with Others

They say that rehearsals are worth ten practices. You may not be in a band, but it’s a good idea to find musicians to jam with. This will help you up your game and you will end up learning from others.

Playing with other musicians will teach you to think on the spot when it comes to improvising. It will improve your timing in forcing you to keep up with others and it’s also a terrific networking and social outlet.

Should I Take Lessons?

Lessons are helpful for any musician. They are especially useful if you are starting out on your instrument and/or have no prior musical knowledge. If you do a bit of research, you will find several books and videos on the internet that provide lessons for beginners on up, but in person lessons are important during those early stages.

As you get more advanced, you will learn more about your instrument and you will be able to teach yourself. However, it’s always a good idea to go to a teacher to help you address specific issues you may be having. Even scheduling brush up lessons every now and then is a good idea.

The lessons and resources found on the internet are great, and better yet, many of them are free, but a teacher will help you learn at the level you are at. They will also give you specific things to work on every week which can keep you from falling into a rut.

What About Rock Schools?

If you are a parent looking to get your child started on music lessons, or even if you are an adult, you have probably considered rock schools, a craze that has been sweeping the nation for the past few years.

Rock schools are mainly geared to children, but they usually have adult programs as well. The premise is that they offer lessons as well as a performance program. Students have the option to take lessons only, but many go for the full package, performance included.

Formats may vary across different rock schools, but here’s how it plays out. Every season, the school provides the children with choices as far as which performance group they want to be in. Each group may represent different genres of music or different bands.

The students choose to be in a certain group according to the music they want to play. They are put into a group with other kids who chose to be in the same group. Then they must learn specific relevant cover songs as chosen by the leader of the group, one of the rock school teachers.

They spend months learning the songs and get to perform them at the end of the season.

Rock schools are good for students because of the performance aspect. When children are made to learn songs for a performance, they are more likely to learn them better and increase their skill level in doing so.

However, there has been some criticism of the rock school format. For one, the age group of the main performers is usually 7-18. The disparity in age is beneficial for younger, beginning students but it can be frustrating for more advanced players who spend months practicing and take the risk of having the performance brought down by kids who are just starting out.

Rock schools are also quite expensive. There have been some efforts to provide scholarships for lower income kids looking to join but the funds are not always available.

Practice Tips for Different Types of Musicians

Now let’s take a look at practice tips for different types of musicians.

Drummers and PercussionistsEvery musician should be practicing with a metronome to perfect their timing, but this is especially essential for drummers who set the tempo for the entire band.

When focusing on timing, it’s important to think about what may be causing you to go off time. As a drummer, you have all your limbs in motion. It may be that your bass drum foot it not as relaxed as it should be or maybe the hand hitting the snare is getting ahead of the beat.

Whatever the case may be, it’s essential to be aware of timing issues and do your best to correct them.

Grip and posture are also important, and many drummers are advised to practice in the mirror to make sure they are playing in a relaxed manner.

Since drummers rely on both the left and right sides of their body, they should be trying to switch around their hands and feet so they can strengthen both sides.

Rudiments are also essential. These are sticking patterns including single stroke roll, double stroke roll, flam stroke and others that are more complex. Paradiddles and Swiss triplets are also recommended.

Stringed Instruments

If you play a stringed instrument, it’s important to increase hand strength. This can be done by simply playing the neck of the instrument over and over going slowly at first and increasing speed as you go. The notes should be coming out clean, clear and precise. If they start getting sloppy, slow down and start again.

There are several types of stringed instruments including basses, guitars, cellos, violins, banjos and more. These all may have different tunings but essentially the left-hand technique (for right hand players) is similar.

The right-hand technique varies greatly. You may play with a bow, a pick or your fingers. While we can’t get into the way to practice with each, we do recommend that you learn the proper way to play and use repetition to improve.

Stringed players must also learn and practice theory. This consists of scales and how notes work together in a composition. Studying theory will help with songwriting, soloing and coming up with lines for songs. It will also make it easier for you to find notes on the fretboard.

Like drummers, string players should practice with a metronome to improve timing.

Woodwind or Brass Instruments

Woodwind and brass instruments require the right blend of finger and diaphragm control. Musicians must learn to relax their hands while playing and not squeeze notes. They should also play in a relaxed posture.

Playing a lot of long low notes and holding them for as long as possible will help strengthen your diaphragm. You can also alternate loud and soft notes to increase your breathing control.

As with every other instrument, it’s important to start slow, and build up speed as you go making sure to correct any mistakes before moving forward. Playing with a metronome is also recommended.

Keyboardists and Pianists

Pianists have the best (or maybe worst) of all worlds. They must be skilled with theory, but they play with both their left and right hands. With the right hand on the deeper end of the instrument and the left hand on the higher end, they must develop coordination and dexterity, much like a drummer.

Keyboardist should focus on exercises that will help them build their dexterity, technicality, finger strength and wrist flexibility. Playing scales and arpeggios up and down the keyboard will help with technique as well as theory. 

Piano and keyboards may use tablature which tells them where their fingers should be placed, but to get ahead, you will need to read music. This is something that should be focused on during practice as well.

Note: Reading music is helpful no matter what instrument you play. If you are trying to get gigs as a professional musician, you will almost always need to know how to read, especially if you play classical.

Singers

Singers rely on their mouths, diaphragms, and ears when they sing. Warming up will typically consist of exercises used to stretch the mouth such as yawn-sigh techniques and trills.

Next, they will focus on breathing and technique by doing things like a two-octave pitch glide that allows them to transition from their head voice to their chest voice. This will also work their diaphragm and improve breathing control.

There is no one way to teach singers to get on pitch. They can only do this through imitation. It is recommended that they work with an instrument (a piano is recommended) and play the notes and then sing them back. They can also learn songs from other artists to work on pitch and technique.

Learning an instrument is not easy. The right practice techniques can help you become a better player, so you excel at your craft. What do you recommend incorporating in your music routine to achieve excellence?

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