How to practice an instrument

Just as a runner trains for a race, so too must a musician train for a performance. When getting ready to play in a public performance, it is important to create a practice plan to help you achieve your goal of performing the piece(s). I’ve created this list of ideas to work from that may help you in deciding how best to prepare yourself for your performance.

Consistency:

The mind is only capable of processing and storing so much information at a given time. Thus, brute force memorization in a limited time-frame has little long-term impact on the skill to be developed or the information to be memorized. If you must play from memory, or if you are developing a new technique, it is far better to practice the skill each day for thirty minutes than it is to practice it one day for 210 minutes.

Both strategies work out to the same amount of time over the duration of one week, but the high-volume strategy will fatigue both the mind and the muscles. In designing your practice time, I recommend setting a goal for the week, and dividing that number by 7 for a daily practice amount.

Working slow:

If you watch great musicians play, they make it look easy, and to them it is. This is largely because they develop the skill in such a way that the work is never physically uncomfortable.

Particularly in developing new physical skill sets, work slow enough that you can observe how your body is operating. Are you holding excess tension in your shoulders? Do you have a finger that sits too far above the keys/fingerboard? Are you moving in a way that’s efficient and intentional? If you can’t answer these questions, I’d advice playing at a speed slow enough for you to observe and find the answer. At this speed, you can control and iron out any inefficiencies in how you move relative to the instrument. Practicing with efficient motion will help you reach higher speeds more quickly and reduce your risk of injury!

Many player related injuries fall under the category of RSI’s, or Repetitive Strain Injuries. These can include conditions such as tendinitis and carpal tunnel. Developing these conditions is often related to long hours of practicing a repetitive physical skill, such as playing an instrument, in a manner which contradicts the way your body naturally moves.  Speed at a task is the natural progression of practicing efficient motion and should not be achieved through brute force or overextending what the body can do comfortably.

Warm-ups and Rest:

Never underestimate the power of a good warm-up! When you first sit down to play, be sure to take some time to warm up your muscles for the work ahead. This can involve simple stretches, as well as exercises on your instrument. Scales make a good “technical sandbox” in this regard, in that you can adapt how you play them to exercise or warm up whatever muscles concern you most. As a classical guitar player, for example, a warm up might involve some slow, concentrated scale work revolving around different two stroke finger groups in the right hand (ex: index middle, middle ring, index ring, etc.).

Rest is important too! Listen to what your muscles are telling you and rest when you feel fatigued. Take a break, stretch your muscles a little to relieve excess tension that may have built up, and put your instrument away for a little while. You can come back to it later in the day. Itzhak Perlman, for example, has often said that he plays about 4 hours each day, but breaks it up into smaller, 30-minute blocks. This strategy works well in the you can take time in between working periods to refresh your mind and your muscles, while still achieving lots of working time throughout the day! Be sure to work time into your practice plan for both warm-ups and rest.

Working on Songs/Repertoire:

In working on new music, I recommend an “observation”/sight reading pass through the music. Run through the music, or a substantial section of it, and jot down some notes onto the music. Note things like fingerings you wouldn’t have caught sight reading, weird rhythms, weird accidentals, or anything else you may need to draw your attention to when you get to doing detailed work.

Now that your score is full of useful markings and information, pick a section to work on. I recommend starting with the first and last sections and working your way towards the middle over time. With each section, I like to get the mechanical foundations done first: am I playing with good posture/technique? Can I play comfortably? What sorts of scale/arpeggio patterns are involved? Do I know what fingerings I want/need for this music? Once all of that is resolved, add a musical “layer”. Begin working on dynamic changes, tempo changes, and any other musical markings that the piece calls for.

As you get comfortable with all of the sections, begin combining them together into larger portions of the work until you’ve got the whole thing. Working this way, you’ll finish with a very consistent, confident presentation of the music.

Consult with a teacher:

YouTube can’t give you feedback. Neither can books. To really develop yourself as a musician, you need feedback from an informed set of eyes and ears that can diagnose how your performance looks and sounds. 

For skill sets that depend so heavily on how you physically move, feedback from a professional is important! A teacher can observe how you move and give you feedback based on their experience. This, along with slow practice, also guard against risks of injury!

In addition to making sure you practice in a way that’s physically sustainable, a teacher will give you guidance on musical aspects of your playing such as tone production, quality of sound, and musical expression. Particularly in the early stages, your teacher will be instrumental in helping to guide your progress and find your musical voice.

We have a team of dedicated teachers at JC Music to help guide you through the process of learning an instrument. You read more about our awesome faculty, here!

Music Lessons

JC Music offers affordable music lessons on almost every instrument! Regular music lessons are a great way to work with a professional to develop yourself as a musician and achieve your goals. You can learn more about our program here!

Example plan:

Name: [Your Name]

Instrument: [Your instrument]

Goal: Prepare [Your song here] for [Your event here]

Estimated Required time: 210 minutes per week (30mins daily)

Pre-warmup: stretches, breathing exercises, etc (2 mins)

Warmup: targeted technical exercises, scales, etc (3 mins)

Repertoire/New Material: [Your song here] (20 mins)

Ending exercise/Old Material: something fun you’re familiar with and do well (3 mins)

Rest/Closing: stretches, breathing exercises, etc (2 mins)

Notes about Adjusting this plan:

The basic blocks of information and the order that they are presented in follows a typical music lesson. In your practice, you may find that you need more or less time for a particular activity. In such cases, adjust the time values based on what you observe. This could result in more practice time, if you need more work in a given area. I advise having all of these components in some capacity and leaving the order as is. I would advise against removing an item to create more time for another item within the 30 minutes per day span. Instead, simply increase the amount of time you play each day.

But what about [x]?

Have thoughts or questions? We’re happy to help! Send us an email from our contact page, and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can!

-Shawn Matyasovszky
Director of Music Lessons

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