How to practise your instrument most effectively
Whilst no one has mastered a musical instrument without practice, some musicians make very slow progress even though they practise for hours every day. This is almost always because they are not using their time wisely. Here then are some hints and tips to get you playing like a pro as quickly as possible.
Before you start:
Prepare your space
If possible you should have a designated space for your practice, whether that be in your bedroom, office or, if you're lucky, dedicated music room. Make sure the things you need are to hand e.g. music stand, sheet music, mutes, rosin, valve oil, metronome, helpful dictionaries etc. - time is precious so you don't want to waste it looking for things.
Have a routine
Know how much time you want to practise for and have a schedule of when you plan to do it. Be realistic about the amount of time you want to spend - if you schedule an hour and only manage 15 minutes, it will only discourage you - but remember that if you schedule too little you will not improve much, if at all. As complete beginner 10-15 minutes every day is a good starting point, but this should increase as you advance.
Leave that tablet or smartphone in a different room. Checking your notifications is not part of your practice session! And don't pretend that you can practise with the television on!
Once you start:
Above all, use your time wisely! If you are going to practise for 30 minutes, it makes little sense using this time playing through your greatest hits. You should always be looking to expanding your technique. This means learning to play things that are currently too difficult for you. With this in mind, this is what a good practise session might look like, for a player of intermediate to advanced standard. (Beginners may combine the technical and repertoire sections into one):
Start by doing a few warm-ups without your instrument. These should be relevant to the instrument you play and help to relax your body and focus your mind. For example, on the violin you could stretch your back and arms and makes some circular movements with your head, all the while keeping a straight back (good posture is vital!). Wind players might add some breathing exercises.
Warm-up with your instrument. These should be simple technical exercises to get fingers, embouchure and mind moving. For specific examples, check out 8notes warm-up sheets
(choose an instrument from the following flute
, alto sax
, French horn
, euphonium treble
, euphonium bass
, F tuba
, Bb tuba
Technique. You should spend some time working on specific technical aspects. Some of these, especially scales and arpeggios, are common to all instruments and should feature on most, if not all, days. Also take the time to consider techniques specific to your instrument and/or that have featured in repertoire that you are currently studying. If you are a wind player this might include double-tonguing
, as a string player double-stopping
, or as a pianist pedalling
Repertoire. This should be the most engaging part of the practice session. As said, however, it is important not to just play over pieces you already know - you should aim to challenge yourself, otherwise you will not improve. Be realistic too, however. It is pointless studying something that lies too far outside your current abilities.
Seek out the difficult passages in the pieces you are studying. Work out what is difficult about them and perhaps turn them into an exercise. This can also then be added to your 'technical' practice the following day. At all times try to remain analytical in your approach. It is easy sometimes to practise the same problematic passage over and over again, making the same mistake every time. This can be counterproductive - in effect you are just practising to play the passage the wrong
way. You need to break it down into sections, slow it down, find corresponding exercises that will help.
Always have pencil!
Don't be afraid to write on your music. Sometimes you will need to add slurring, dynamics, fingerings or other instructions which are not on your part. Don't trust yourself to remember what you decided next time you play - it is important to write it down and to be consistent. (The same goes when you are playing in a band or orchestra. You should always be ready to mark-up difficult passages or add instructions given by the conductor.)
Stop watching the clock
As you practise, and especially as you improve, you will start to notice that you become absorbed in your practice routine, even when practising something apparently dull and repetitive. This is a sure sign that things are going well!
Play with others
When learning it's important to play with other musicians as soon as you can. Join a band or an orchestra. Many of the players will be better than you, but this will help to motivate you to practise more. You will also learn new repertoire, develop your ensemble skills and, given that playing together is a social activity, have a lot of fun.
Take an exam
Exams are a really important part of learning to play. Like belts in karate, they provide a structured path that leads towards mastery. You will certainly experience a little stress as you approach an exam, but this will focus your mind and inspire you to practise. And passing a grade exam, at any level, is always a significant achievement. It will make you hungry for more!
Remember also to cut yourself some slack. It's also okay to play things that are well within your ability just for fun. Actually that can be pretty important, since this will allow you to concentrate on non-technical issues i.e. to play really musically.
And if it's fun you're after, remember to browse 8notes' huge collection of sheet music