In the words of Basketball Hall of Famer Allen Iverson, “What are we talking about? Practice? We’re talking about practice?!?” Well, yes and for good reason. Learning how to practice is often overlooked and can be the key to reaching your goals. Creating and following an effective practice routine is one of the most important skills for any musician.
Let’s define practice. I have heard countless students tell the story of being frustrated that they don’t feel that they are getting better and assure me that they have been spending a lot of time playing. There is a difference between practicing and playing. Simply put, the goal of practice should be to progress and increase your skill level. I often ask students, “Are you better this week in any area than you were last week?” This can be a small or large accomplishment and focusing on areas that need improvement will help you avoid getting into a rut. Playing what you already know is what many students spend too much time with and I will come back to this idea later in the blog.
Schedule your time. You should decide what you want to accomplish ahead of time and make sure your goals are realistic and attainable. One of my teachers used the analogy of looking at a map before driving to a new destination; you know where you want to go and you want to take the most efficient route. How many times have you started practicing and after a couple of minutes you start to noodle around and the next thing you know, it has been 30 minutes and nothing has been accomplished other than playing random parts to songs you have played before. A simple practice list or outline will keep you focused on what you need to work on.
What to practice? You can quickly get overwhelmed by the amount of material that you need to work on so try to create a practice routine that includes 4 to 5 areas depending on the time you have. Here are some common practice areas:
Warm up exercises – this can be simple patterns, scales or etudes that get your hands ready for the practice ahead. This is also a great way to start because it doesn’t require you to be creative and just getting started is all important.
Scales – this can be learning a new scale pattern, working on new ways to connect scale patterns or learning a new sequence.
Chords – try to learn a new chord voicing or work on switching between chords that are new or challenging
Improvisation – It is important to practice creating your own music and many students are under the impression that they aren’t creative enough to improvise. There are many strategies and exercises to help you develop this skill and the more you try improvising, the easier it gets.
Rhythm – This can be working on a new strumming pattern, finger picking, arpeggiating chords.
Songs – This is the area that we all want to jump to and playing a song is the main goal for most students. This is what motivated everyone to start playing an instrument and needs to be part of each practice routine. This is where you get to apply the skills you have acquired from the other practice areas. Different songs will have different challenges and you can tailor you routine based on the songs you are working on.
Playing what you already know – Many diets and fitness routines will include a “cheat” day where you don’t have to follow the plan and this works well for music practice. It is good to have a day where you just want to play through songs that you already know. It’s fun and keeps the excitement of playing your instrument alive and that is very important. It is also a good idea to finish each practice session by playing a song or two that you have already learned and this keeps them fresh.
Other areas might include: reading standard notation, theory, songwriting, ear training
How much time to practice – This is different for each student and might vary depending on the day. You might try to keep each practice area within 10-15 minutes. The warm up can be shorter and there will be days when you might only get 20 to 30 minutes to practice so decide on a couple of areas only. You can always mix up the routines and try a different order and rotate practice areas on different days.
You will see positive results from consistently following an effective practice schedule and remember to have fun.