Practice Tips

by Jamey MannNFMC Piano Festival

I am the newest member of The Catoctin School of Music family. I am a classical guitarist with years of playing and teaching experience. Through my years of teaching I found that one of the most important things I can teach my students is how to practice efficiently and correctly. This is sometimes more important than any riff or technical exercise I can teach them because after they leave me and move onto other teachers the practice routine they developed will remain. This is a determining factor in a student’s success or failure in music. Below is a list of important recommendations I make to all my students in regards to how they practice. I hope you find them helpful; there will be plenty more to follow.

The Practice Space- The practice space should be a private and calm environment free from distraction and noise. Turn off the TV; turn off the cell phone, and computer. Too often these devices will pull students away from the task at hand, taking 2 minutes to return a text message or email can easily turn into an ordeal that will burn up valuable practice time.

Practice is not a performance or jam session. The practice space must be private to avoid distractions from family and friends. Many practice hours go to waste because a passer by has a song request or wants to show off the new riff they learned. Avoid this pitfall by saying firmly, “No. I am practicing now. Please come by later.”

Supplies– Once you have spent substantial money on an instrument and you’re spending about $100+ a month for lessons, do not skimp on the essential materials you need for learning! The supplies we need for a practice will vary with different instruments. However, five items are always needed regardless of the instrument you play: music stand, metronome, tuner, pencil, and sheet music/method book. The two most important of these items are your music and music stand.

A music stand is necessary for proper posture and study of music. Proper posture is extremely important for any instrument and will not be obtained if your music is resting on your bed or coffee table. Your music must be set at eye level so that the neck can be straight and the music in good lighting for proper study. Many physical problems can begin to develop by playing an instrument with poor posture.


The sheet music, method books, and assignments must be kept organized and up to date. Keep all the material in a binder where everything you need for your weeks practice can be found quickly. Every minute counts, the quicker you can find your assignments the more time you have to practice.

Time- Time is something that everyone seems to have less and less of these days. When asked the question, “How much should I practice?” my answer is always 60 minutes EVERYDAY. No matter what your goal is in music you need to practice consistently.

This can be a difficult task for many with jobs, school, kids or all of the above. A solution to this problem I give my students is to simply wake up a little earlier and get the practice out of the way before the day starts. This can be a great time to practice, no one is up, no one is going to call and the emails haven’t begun to come in yet. Another solution is to break up the practice time through out the day. You do not need to practice an hour straight: 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes at night can work quite well.

If this does not work try to break up practice time into shorter increments through out the day. However, if you do this make the absolute most of the short time you have.

Another obstacle we find when trying to practice is instrument availability. Many of us can not take our instrument to work or school especially if you play piano, bass, or tuba. In that case I strongly recommend practicing without your instrument. Carry your lesson book or music with you. On a lunch break or between classes read through your music. Try to imagine every finger movement, visualize working through technical issues, and hearing the music in your minds ear. Also listening to the music you are working on, watching live performances on YouTube is valuable practice. This type of practice allows the student to internalize the music without having to worry about physical distractions of playing the instrument. This will also aid in memorization and musical expression when performing.

Practice smarter not harder!- Whenever I have a student struggling with a piece of music I will try to find out what their process is for learning the piece. Often I find the student practices by playing through the piece from beginning to end with out stopping. This is the most counter productive and damaging way to practice. This will lead to poor technique, wrong notes, poor overall understanding of the music, and lead to bad habits that will be difficult to break.

Practice is the process of isolating, drilling, analyzing music and exercising to improve technical ability on your instrument. A performance practice session is the act of running through a piece in preparation for a performance only after it is thoroughly learned and rehearsed. To avoid getting into the habit of the “Run Through” practice session here are a few ways of organizing your practice session so you can work and learn more efficiently.

  1. Set a realistic goal for the practice session– Do not try to learn an entire work of music in one session. Have in mind what you want to work on and accomplish for the duration of that practice session and stick to it.
  2. Analyze- Before playing try to analyze the form, harmonic structure, and melody without your instrument. Try to identify problem areas that you might run into. Often students realize that a work that is thought to be musically or technically difficult is not so after a brief analysis. This will also help you learn faster!
  3. Learn in sections- Again you can not learn an entire piece of music in one session. Once you have formally analyzed your music begin working on one section at a time. I like to have my students learn the beginning of a work, then the end, and then work our way to the middle. This will help ensure that all parts of the piece get an equal amount of work.
  4. Identify and drill problem areas- After you have worked the music in sections isolate your problem areas and drill them until they are perfect. This may be one or two measures or it might be an entire phrase. Regardless of the size isolate and drill; do not avoid it.
  5. Practice Slowly- Playing too fast too soon is a common mistake with students. This will lead to wrong notes the student does not realize because they are concentrating on speed and students may not realize technical issues that could aid in playing the piece. Also students can develop a poor sense of rhythm because of a constantly fluctuating tempo due to playing at a tempo they can not maintain.

Carefully executed practice makes or breaks the musician. Follow the above recommendations and I guarantee you will be headed for a lifetime of healthy, happy and successful practicing!

Catoctin School of Music
1 Comment
  • Suzanne Greer
    Posted at 11:44 am, June 1, 2014

    Thanks for your article – timely and helpful advice!

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