Practice Makes Perfect

 by Russell Thorpe

It's no surprise that learning to play a musical instrument takes practice (and a lot of it). There’s no way around it. The more you practice—if you do it right—the better you will become. Knowing how to practice well is the key to making your practice time rewarding and enjoyable. I’ve been a professional musician and teacher for many years and have used these tips to sharpen my own skills as well as help my students improve. Try these tips below and I bet you’ll be surprised by how much progress you make in a short time.



Make Mistakes

The goal of practice is to make mistakes. When we make a mistake in practice we should always make an effort to immediately stop and correct it, without judging it. The better strategy would be to identify what the error was and break down what you are playing into the smallest unit you can think of and practice just that. If it's the connection between just two notes or chords, that's okay. When we play music we are often asking our hands, feet, and voices to do things that don't come naturally to some. That's why we practice. Learning to play instruments involves A LOT of repetition if you want to get good at it, which means time. Some people give 10 hours a week in practice time, others just 15 minutes. Either way can give you improvements as long as you practice smartly!

Practice the Challenging Things First

 Almost everyone unconsciously prefers to play the things they know well first in a practice session. While this may feel good and give us reassurance, it does little to help us actually figure out the things in our music that may vex us. This tendency also uses up your most precious practice resource, your focus and attention. It is best to tackle the hardest things first, when we have the most determination and attention in our practice session, instead of 45 minutes into it when our minds are starting to wander or we are starting to tire and fatigue.

Don't stop once you can play it through a single time. Practice it until you couldn’t possibly play it wrong. For professionals this mean being willing to play a passage perhaps hundreds of times. Taking the time and having the patience to work this way when you practice ensures that you have truly learned the song you’re working on, as opposed to simply familiarizing yourself with it.

The goal of practice is to make mistakes. When we make a mistake in practice we should always make an effort to immediately stop and correct it, without judging it.

Use Rhythm Skills

What does the rhythm say? Have you learned the counting syllables we all use in school? They’re extraordinarily useful when it comes to figuring out tricky passages. If you can sing the rhythm confidently before you ever play the passage, you can devote more attention to tricky fingerings or articulations without having to puzzle out challenging rhythms as well. For focus and mastery level students there are several deeper levels to rhythm that students can choose to explore.

Stay Healthy!

Drink water and eat a snack! Before you sit down for practice eat a protein-rich snack. Making music is harder work than most people realize. Sustained mental effort and attention (which is what effective practice is) costs your body energy. The brain may make up 5% of our total body weight, but it accounts for over 20% of the total energy your body needs every day to stay alive. So when you are getting ready to really work hard, give your brain a welcome boost with a healthy snack! Along with snacks goes good hydration habits as well, always try to choose water over other choices.

Minimize Distractions

Don’t practice with the TV on. Like I mentioned above, practice is all about how you train yourself to focus your attention. If you really want to get better at music, then making sure you aren’t going to be interrupted or distracted is essential. With the busy schedule so many of us try to keep at today’s hectic pace, the time you actually have to to devote to things is precious, so let’s all learn to make the best use of it for our goal of improving our practice. If it’s only 15 minutes per week, that’s okay too. Let’s just employ strategies that make the best use of our fifteen minutes.

Take the time...to truly learn the song you’re working on, as opposed to simply familiarizing yourself with it.

Welcome Frustration

Frustration. It's okay to be frustrated with things. It is often the first sign that either a) a passage or piece is too challenging for me at its current tempo and I should slow it down or b) I am getting tired and soon should stop practice for the day so I don’t reinforce any bad habits or mistakes I make because I am tired. Learning to recognize when you are becoming frustrated in practice is a key step to avoiding having practice turn into an uncomfortable and undesirable thing for a student.

These tips should help you improve the the effectiveness of your practice. Decide which ones will help you the most and start implementing them. When you look back over your recent practice sessions you should see a big improvement.




Written by
Russell Thorpe

Russell thorpe pic website

Saxophone, clarinet and flute teacher, Russell Thorpe has been teaching and training young musicians for over a decade, and works with students ranging from 6 to 60 years old. In addition to teaching at Music House, Russell is the head coach at Heartscope Learning Center where he oversees the analysis and customization of every student program they offer. His work as both a cognitive trainer and a music teacher gives him a keen insight into how people learn. Russell is a jazz composer and an original member of the Black House Improvisors’ Collective, a Kansas City arts initiative sponsored by the Charlotte Street Foundation. He frequently performs with the People’s Liberation Big Band. Were he to have free time for leisure interests, he would run every day and be more attentive to his organic vegetable garden.