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We Don't Talk About Practice

Here are 14 tips to improve your practice habits so that the time you spend at your instrument is more efficient and you see measurable progress each week!

There is nothing more frustrating as a music teacher than starting a lesson with a student and realizing after the first few measures that they did not practice. Instead of moving on to learn a new skill, I basically have to re-teach what we learned in the previous lesson because they are not ready for new material. As a new teacher this used to frustrate me, but then I started seeing this pattern in several of my students. I thought maybe their poor practice habits were my fault. You see, I didn’t talk about practice with my students. I would just tell them, “Ok work on page 4 and 5 in your lesson book this week. See you next lesson!” But music students don’t come programed to practice the “right way.” It is a skill they need to learn, just like hand posture, finger numbers, tongue placement, or proper breathing. So I started talking about practice and began to notice some positive changes!

I learned these practice habits first hand over the years as a music student. In grad school I studied voice, jazz piano, composition, sang in choir, and taught 30 piano and voice students. I ALWAYS had so much music to learn, and I never felt like I had enough time to learn it all. It was during those years that I especially picked up a few tricks to maximize my time in the practice room and learn my music well. These are the tools I started to teach my students as a part of our weekly lessons.

1. Plan a specific time to practice each day

Put practice on your calendar the same way you put your lesson time on your calendar. You wouldn’t skip your lesson with your teacher, so you shouldn’t skip your practice with yourself. If you leave it to “when I get to it,” it won’t happen, so take a few minutes and think through each day of your week. Pick a time that you can consistently make practice a habit. With younger students, set a time based around a current routine that they are familiar with such as right after afternoon snack, before breakfast or put it in their morning “get ready” routine, or their after school routine tied right into homework habits. This is a good way to help them take responsibility for their own practice habits and minimizes the parents’ need to “remind” (hound…cough, cough) our kids to practice. If you have a really busy day/evening, shorten your practice time. Don’t skip it. Run through your song once. Do a quick scale warm-up. KEEP THE ROUTINE. You will thank yourself later. Also, if practice is not a regular habit now, set a daily reminder on your phone until it becomes a regular habit. (They say it takes the average person 66 days to create a new habit so use that reminder for at least 2 months.)

2. Have a plan for your practice time

Time is a valuable commodity, and you don’t want to waste precious minutes of your practice thinking about what to do. My practice plan normals begins with some kind of finger exercise. Then I dive into the sections of the songs I need to work on. Our brains are wired to work on things in chunks for short time periods, so after about 10 or 15 minutes, I switch to a new section of that song or something else before my brain zones out and my practice becomes less efficient. I also try to build in some time to play for pleasure, normally either at the very beginning to get my creative energy flowing or at the end to wind down and just remember that I really do love to play. The nice part about having a private teacher is that your teacher can help guide your practice plan, especially if you are a young musician.

3. Write down what you need to work on

I ask each of my older students to bring a practice notebook to lessons each week. I actually used to write down a pretty detailed practice plan when I taught in person. I made notes about specific measures, musical expression, tempos they should use when working with a metronome through passages, etc. With my online students, I either have my students write down details in their practice notebook during the lesson or right after we finish, or with very young students who are still learning to write quickly, I will text or email their parents with notes of specific instructions after the lesson. I like when my students are old enough to write down their own instructions because they remember it better and take more responsibility for their practice plan. Whatever you don’t write down you won’t remember, and those details are specifically designed to help you grow. Take a few extra seconds and jot down those notes to use during your practice for the week.

Whatever you don’t write down you won’t remember, and those details are specifically designed to help you grow. Take a few extra seconds and jot down those notes to use during your practice for the week.

4. Do a quick practice immediately after your lesson

The most important day to practice is actually the day of your lesson…specifically right after your lesson. Everything you talked about with your teacher is fresh in your mind, and you will solidify those concepts if you work through them on your own for even a few minutes after your lesson with your teacher. I learned this first hand when taking jazz lessons for the first time…learning jazz improv was very different from my classical training. I quickly learned that if I did not slip into a practice room right after my lesson for even 10 or 15 minutes to play those brand new harmonies, I wouldn’t remember them by the time I got home to practice 8 hours later. Those 10 or 15 minutes right after my lesson set me up for successful practice the rest of the week!

5. Work on the challenging stuff right after your lesson

I have had so many students over the years come into a lesson and say, “I know we talked about this last week, but I got home and didn’t remember how to play it.” Most of the time “I got home” translated more accurately as “4 days later after my lesson.” Honestly, what they were working on was probably brand new and a bit difficult, and waiting 4 days between their lesson and their first time practicing it was too long of a gap to remember those new concepts. Practicing the most challenging material right after a lesson can mean the difference between success and failure for the week. Trust me…don’t think you’ll remember in a day or two because experience has taught me you won’t. Sit down with that challenge right after your lesson and play it on your own a few times. Tomorrow it won’t be such a challenge and each day you play it, it will get better.

6. Record your lesson

We have some amazing technology that we carry around in our pockets, and we can use that to our advantage. I actually recorded every single one of my voice lessons from my undergrad on…like the entire lesson. Then I would go back and listen during my practice time at home, driving in the car to and from running errands, or while washing dishes at the end of the night. Sometimes my voice teacher was trying to get me to change something like my resonance and I did not understand what he was talking about until I heard myself singing on the recording. When I heard the inconsistencies in my tone for myself, I was able to make the correction so much more easily. Sometimes what you are learning is hard, and having a video or audio recording to refer to at home is the perfect tool to help you be successful in your practice. We use Zoom or Google Meet for Little Chord lessons, and you can actually record the entire lesson, so take advantage of that opportunity!

7. Record yourself playing/singing during your lesson time

Speaking of recording yourself, I actually have started having my students record themselves during their practice time and then immediately watching the video. It’s hard to objectively hear what you are doing well and not so well when you are concentrating so hard on playing/singing the music. Watching a video of yourself lets you give your full attention to see and hear what is going well in your song and what still needs work. One of my students was getting ready for a recital recently, and I recorded her playing her piece. I asked her about her dynamics when we were done watching the video, and her response was, “yeah I totally thought you could hear them, but you really can’t, can you?” Her dynamics for the recital were BEAUTIFUL because she practiced exaggerating them during the next week of practice, and they came across so wonderfully for the performance. Try it…it helps!

8. Keep your practice materials, metronome, and a pencil right next to your instrument in your practice space

Congratulations! You made it to your practice time, and you can’t find your music. Or you can’t find a pencil to circle that sharp you keep missing in measure 9. Or you don’t remember what to work on, and your practice notebook is no where in sight. Oh dear…what a waste of your beautiful practice time! Do yourself a favor and keep your music, practice notebook, a pencil and anything else you need in the same place so that you always have it ready each time you are ready to practice!

9. Write down any questions you want to ask your teacher at your next lesson

I love when my students have questions about their music! I also would have questions for my own teachers that would come up during my practice time. I started writing down my questions in my practice notebook. That way I was sure to remember to ask at my next lesson, and I didn’t waste time trying to remember what my question was.

10. Practice songs in small sections rather than playing through your whole piece

Ever feel like you have bitten off more than you can chew when it comes to a piece of music? This tip is for you! Playing through an entire piece of music over and over again during practice is probably the most inefficient way to learn a song. Chances are good that you ignore/gloss over mistakes to move on to easier parts, or you start over each time you make mistake. What ends up happening is play the parts you know twice as many times as the parts you do not know. In reality, you need to do the opposite. Play the parts where you make mistakes twice as much as the parts you can play perfectly.

With my early players, I tell them they can play through the song one time to get their brain in gear, but no more than that. We then pick out a few specific measures that need work. I give them 1 or 2 measures at a time. I show them how to practice slowly enough that they can play it perfectly. I typically have them do this slow practice with a metronome or they do not play slowly enough or they think they are playing perfectly, and they really are not. Once they can play those measures 5 or 6 times in a row, they are ready to move on to the next measure or two.

The same principle works for more advanced students, except playing through the whole piece will take your whole practice time, so just start with your chunks. Remember when I said 10-15 minutes and your brain starts to zone out? I recommend working on one specific chunk for no more than 10 minutes because after that you start making unnecessary mistakes because your brain is no longer engaged. That doesn’t mean you put the song away; just move on to another chunk in the music and come back and polish this section again tomorrow.

11. Put your phone on do not disturb mode and eliminate distractions

Make your practice time PRACTICE TIME. Not…time to catch up with my friends on Instagram…or finalize my group science project details. I’m literally the worst at this…I get texts about so many things all day long, and it takes my focus away from what I am trying to do. It might only take me 30 seconds to respond, but my brain completely switches gears in the process and I have to remind myself of what I was working on for each interruption. Just do yourself the favor, and put your phone in do not disturb mode. Give your music your full attention, and then catch up with life afterwards.

12. Incorporate listening into your daily practice.

This is such a game changer when it comes to playing with beautiful musicianship. It is so important to have good models to follow when learning a piece of music. I love to read my music while I watch a professional perform a piece. I also have my students read along to recordings. This helps them develop fluent reading skills, it encourages the use of dynamics, articulation, helps a student interpret the song in a more vibrant way, and helps them correct mistakes more quickly because they recognize when what they are playing doesn’t sound quite right. Babies learn to speak by listening to their parents and siblings talk. Musicians are the same way, and whether you realize it or not, what you listen to as a music student is what you will model in your playing.

13. Use your metronome

I have referenced a metronome multiple times during this post but have never really addressed metronome practice. Metronomes are like the secret weapon of quality practice time! It’s such a great tool to help you play more accurately, develop technique, clean up and polish challenging measures, grow your ability to play in a group, and develop your listening skills. You have to learn how to use it, and can work on this skill with your teacher during lessons, but the metronome should be a tool that you use daily during practice. There are several free metronome apps for phones, so you don’t even need to go buy one! I personally use Pro-Metronome and Pulse with my students. Playing along to music tracks is also a great way for young learners to gain confidence playing to a steady tempo. My preschool students use the Online Audio for My First Piano Adventure for almost every week in lessons and for at home practice. Also, with my younger students we often incorporate the metronome in lessons in the form of a rhythm game. It’s a great way to keep their little minds and bodies activity engaged, teach/review new rhythms, and learn how to use a metronome.

14. Don’t take the summer off from your music lessons and practice routine!

We are just a few weeks away from summer break, and I know my momma mind/heart/ body is ready for some much needed relief from the end of the year crazy that happens with spring school activities. However, I have watched students lose weeks of progress because they take the whole summer off from lessons, promise to practice but don’t actually touch the piano, and forget how to read quarter notes and middle C by the time September rolls around. My recommendation for summer is stick to as normal a practice and lesson routine as possible, but enjoy those vacations when they come up! Work on some fun music outside of your regular lesson book. Enroll in a fun music summer camp (we’re working on a few fun virtual music camps this summer for our current students and anyone else who would like to participate. Contact us if you would like more info!) Ask your teacher if you can do 60 minute lessons twice a month instead of 30 minutes every week. Enjoy your summer and take the rest you need! But also, continue working on your instrument consistently. (For those of you who are looking at summer without school/preschool and feeling overwhelmed by the thought of having your kids home all day every day…kids thrive on a routine, so having a consistent practice time as part of a daily schedule is actually very helpful in preventing at least a few of those inevitable meltdowns.)

Practice can be a challenge at times, but it is where we grow as musicians! Try out a few of these tips and see if you notice extra progress in your playing over the next few weeks. Leave us a comment on what tip helped you the most or drop us a note about another practice tip you have used to improve your practice habits!

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