How to Practice Efficiently

By Carolyn Walter

As with any artistic discipline, regular practice is essential to any musician’s mastery of their craft and growth as an artist.  While some may feel that practicing for hours and hours on end is the only route to improvement, the adage “quality over quantity” ought to be kept firmly in mind.  The following
list of strategies contains tips which can help musicians of any instrument, style and skill level practice “smarter” without necessarily practicing harder.

1. Organize your time.

Begin your practice session with a clear outline in mind of what needs to be accomplished.  Many choose to divide a practice session into sections, e.g. setting out to practice for one hour total and using the first fifteen minutes for warm up exercises and tone development, the next  on scales and etudes, and a final 30 minutes on challenging new performance material.

2. Prioritize!

Another important part of organizing your practice is the prioritization of material.  Recognizing and addressing troublesome sections of music is the first step to mastery.  Rather than diving in head-first, it is advisable to review a new piece and assessing what will likely be easy, what material will need the most attention, and finding places where material is repeated multiple times.  You may find that this not only improves the organization of your practice, but makes new musical challenges seem more approachable and less daunting.

3. Set goals.

Working towards goals is a good way to improve quickly, and feel rewarded while doing so.  Rather than simply telling yourself that you want to sound better on a song, you can set an extremely specific objective, such as playing a certain difficult section at a certain goal tempo by a certain day of the week.  Additionally, many people feel that external pressures such as an upcoming performance, recording date or rehearsal can keep them motivated to practice, as opposed to playing all by one’s self.

4. Take advantage of opportunities to practice more than one thing at a time.

For example, a wind, percussion or string instrumentalist may wish to practice various articulation patterns while running through scales and arpeggios.  A wind instrumentalist practicing long tones can focus on dynamic control while also improving their embouchure strength, tone quality and sense of intonation.

5. Don’t rehearse your mistakes.

Hammering away at a difficult section you can almost play, at a fast tempo usually does not deliver the best results.  As many teachers will tell you, it is much better to relax, set your metronome to a manageable tempo and gradually work your way up to the speed you had in mind.  This will also serve to promote good technique and keep you from repetitive stress-related injury.  If you do not already own a high-quality metronome, you can pick up this essential practice tool at Sheet Music Plus:

Qwik Time Quartz Metronome - Sheet Music Plus

Qwik Time Quartz Metronome

If you want to be even more efficient, you can pick up a metronome which doubles as a precision chromatic tuner:

Korg TM-40 Metronome/Tuner

Korg TM-40 Metronome/Tuner

6. “Cramming” is not necessarily a good idea.

You have probably heard that when studying for an exam, it is preferable to work in small but frequent increments, even for shorter periods of time, as opposed to cramming for hours and hours one or two nights before the test.  Information is stored in one’s long term memory much more easily using the latter method; the same can be said for practicing.  Working one hour a day, six days the week before a competition will usually return much more solid results than binging on a six-hour practice session right before a competition.

Many excellent, veteran teachers and performers take the tack that the sheer number of hours one spends in front of their instrument is NOT directly proportional to the benefit experienced.  It is perhaps equally important to find out the way you learn best and developing individualized practice strategies as the ones we have seen above.

Carolyn Walter is a Sheet Music Plus Customer Service representative.  She holds a degree in clarinet performance from San Francisco State University, and is an active music educator and multi-genre performer around the Bay Area.

14 Responses to “How to Practice Efficiently”

  1. 1 Anonymous July 7, 2012 at 7:53 pm

    Very helpful. Thank u.

  2. 3 darpiano August 24, 2012 at 11:24 am

    If ONLY my students would follow this advice! 🙂 Your article is very helpful to me for helping them. Thanks

  3. 4 Luis Irizarry August 25, 2012 at 9:58 am

    6 great tips thank you !!!

  4. 5 Steve August 26, 2012 at 6:20 am

    Great article, but one mistake: in #6 you said “latter” but meant “former”.

  5. 6 lkilgore August 26, 2012 at 7:10 am

    Reblogged this on Linroy Kilgore's Blog and commented:
    How to Practice Efficiently.

  6. 7 timtopham August 27, 2012 at 3:24 am

    Great tips, but what’s with the old-school equipment shown in your posts? I encourage all my students to get apps for metronome, recorders, tuners, etc…. perhaps good to mention these too!

  7. 8 Rod Thomas August 30, 2012 at 10:29 am

    Most excellent! It certainly makes for an intelligent and reasonable approach to practice. I will adopt most of these tips into my daily regimen. Thank you.

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