Meri’s Musical Musings

Some of my favourite practice strategies…

Posted on: April 18, 2009

There are a number of strategies that musicians can use to improve the quality of practicing.

Practice your pieces or difficult sections of pieces backwards.

Don’t play the piece backwards! Learn the last bar (or part of a bar if it’s a sequence of sixteenth notes or faster) or two first, then go back two or three bars. It is encouraging knowing that you can play the end of the piece or the end of a difficult section very well! Often musicians start practising from the beginning, and end up playing the beginning far more often than the beginning. Also, the most errors made are often near the end of a piece in performance. It is also a very good strategy for memorizing a piece. A real time-saver in the learning process.

Feel the pulse before you play.

This helps a musician sort out any potentially difficult rhythms, especially as the notes get faster. Often rhythms played or sung incorrectly are due to lack of knowing how the rhythm fits into the beat.

Practice your technique without the instrument.

 If your teacher recommends a change in your finger motion, work on the change without the instrument until you can do it easily. You can also do this with embouchure.

Incorporate learning technique in the warmup.

Use any aspect of your playing that you need to focus on as a warmup exercise, and you kill two birds with one stone.

Learn changes in technique without the music.

You don’t want to divide your attention between the music and learning a change in technique, so learn the change of technique without music.

Pay attention to your technique outside of normal practicing.

You’ll learn changes in technique more quickly if you check it every so often in rehearsals and concerts, correcting it if necessary.

Separate learning the instrument from learning to read music.

This one applies especially to adult beginners. Learning to play an instrument is often difficult because our attention is divided between two tasks that each require a lot of mental resources. Use computer programs, or someone who reads music well to help you with fluent music reading.

Conduct the piece while you sing it.

 This strategy is good for finding phrase shapes. Often musicians, especially amateurs, play a piece with very little expression, mostly because there is little awareness of the direction of the phrase.

Mark the places which need practice.

This helps to focus one’s attention on difficult passages, particularly if you mark both the beginning and the end of the passage to be learned. Too many musicians attempt to rely on memory as to what needs to be practiced, and then come across something that they needed to practice but left out.
And don’t just use circles, because you’ll often forget what the circle means, especially with accidentals: use a sign that gives a clear meaning, such as the sharp or flat sign near a note you tend to miss the accidental.

Use other tools to assist you with your practice.

Besides the pencil, add a set of highlighters, they can, for example, be used to highlight a recurring interval which could serve as anchor points,  a change from a otherwise constand pattern (Bach Preludes (both WTC and Little Preludes) do this), mark the limited combinations of notes that occur in a section of a piece (parts of the second movement of Beethoven’s op. 49 no. 2 come to mind). Also flags are useful for marking the particular pages or selections yu need to work on. Flashcards can also help with learning some aspects of music, especially with technical elements, new notes, fingerings, or progressions.

Make priorities on what needs to be practiced.

 Learning some aspects of playing and technique are more important than others, and difficult sections in pieces that are being performed in a week are more important than easier pieces that will be performed in three month’s time.

Learn to the point of mastery. Learn the music, technique, or new fingering to the point where you can do it without thinking about it.

Focus on one thing at a time.

 Too often, musicians practice with a superficial coverage of the material, which means they don’t let the material sink in. Practice only one thing (a phrase you are having difficulty with, an unfamiliar fingering, and new technique, etc.) for a few days for your entire practice session until you can do it consistently without thinking about it.

Reduce the amount of material you work on.

Part of the reason many musicians learn the music poorly is because they have too much to work on. You may need to leave some ensembles and forgo doing some exams or competitions.

Make the most difficult passage sound the best.

 Often in written music, there are difficult passages. Often musicians go over the very easy parts many times, neglecting the difficult parts, therefore requiring the musician to slow down or even stop.

Work a fast passage from a slow tempo.

Using a metronome, learn a fast passage at a tempo where you can play it accurately, and bring it up to the desired tempo in small tempo increases. (2-4 beats)

Work down a passage.

This is a strategy I learned from one of my clarinet instructors. if the music has long phrases (6-8 bars) where phrasing is ambigious or good breathing spots are hard to find, find the slowest tempo you can play it in one breath well, and work it down to the tempo it is to be played, being sure to maintain good sound.

Separate yourself from the instrument.

Certain musical tasks, such as solving difficult rhythms, are worked more efficiently away from the instrument.

Use wrong rhythms.

This is especially useful in practising a fast run in a piece. It’s easier to play a pair of notes when they have different values than when they have the same value of the beat. When confidence is boosted, then revert back to even rhythms.

Find sections in the piece that are exactly the same, or almost identical.

A lot of music has sections that are repeated, or very similar. This can cut down on how long you spend on practising on a piece!

Look for patterns in the music. Difficult sections in many pieces are often relatively simple scales and arpeggios.

Read the score before you play. Often musicians play a piece without looking at the whole of it. This can help you find potentially difficult spots, especially in terms of fingerings, or difficult intervals. It can also be used to find out how the parts fit with each other.

Practice a piece slower or faster than you intend to play it.

By practicing a fast piece faster than you intend to perform it (while maintaining clarity between notes!), you allow yourself a great amount of technical freedom and confidence, especially when having to do many sixteenth and thirty-second notes. Practicing a slow piece slower than you intend to play it allows a musician to discover phrase shapes. For wind players and singers, it is a good challenge in developing a high degree of breath control.

By using effective practice strategies, not only will musicians learn the music better, but often will also require less time to learn it!


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  • None
  • V V: Wish I had read this before I fell for their scheme ! Oh well - have posted my experience on Yelp and N49 and hoping others can avoid the pain of fal
  • clariniano: Thanks for the additional information. It was actually Yelp that deleted my reviews, because of so-called bias. I too have seen the horrible technique
  • No Thanks: Former Teacher at the Ontario Conservatory of Music I took lessons at the Ontario Conservatory and when I left for private lessons from another tea
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