Sunday, February 19, 2006

How to Practice: A Music Lesson

Here's another lesson I wrote when I was active in #guitar on dalnet many years ago. I hope you find it helpful!

1. Goals

A. Long Range Goals

What precisely is it that you really want to accomplish? Is it your goal to be a professional performer or teacher? You need to decide. Or perhaps you'd be just as happy as an amateur musician, for there's nothing embarrassing about that. Many people have enjoyed music for years just playing for their own pleasure.

B. Weekly Goals

Regardless of your long range goals you'll need some weekly goals. Having a goal to work toward reduces boredom as well as gives purpose to all the practicing. I'd recommend no more than 3 goals per week - examples could include: memorizing a piece of music, smoothing left hand movements in a difficult passage of music, etc. If you meet your goals before the week is up you can always modify or choose another goal.

C. Daily Goals

What do I plan to accomplish today? This is VERY important. It's the one thing that keeps you from sitting and "noodling." Too many people spend too much practice time not practicing. An example of a daily goal could be as simple as: I will learn the first eight measures of the piece I've chosen. (tip: When practicing don't criticize! That's why you are practicing. Negative comments to yourself only distract you from your goal - comments like: "This is awful" or "I'll never learn this". Rather - identify what you think is giving you the problem this will help you reach your goal.)

2. Practice Schedule

A. How much time will I spend today?

Only you can decide this. But let me help. Time is very important in the overall scheme of things; regardless of how efficient your practice time is time will come into play. Let's just make some comparisons, then some simple math. First, you are good at what you do a lot. When was the last time you fell down while just simply walking? Probably not in a long time, why? Because you've spent a great deal of your life walking. So let's assume it takes you 2500 hours to be a "good" guitar player (I'm not sure if 2500 is correct and I won't define "good"). If you are practicing a half hour a day it will take you approximately 13.7 years to be a "good" guitar player. So if you want to speed that up a bit, simply bump your practice up to an hour a day. Voila, seven years. Not happy with that? What about 3 hours a day? What about 6? I think you see where I'm heading?

B. Is that time consistent with the goals I have set?

Remember that very first long term goal you set? Is the practice time you've scheduled enough to meet that goal? Remember your goals!

C. When have I scheduled this practice session?

You know better than anyone when you are best at learning new things. Some musicians learn best with their practiced scheduled throughout the day; others learn well in a single session. Which ever you choose schedule a regular time to do it. Don't just say, "I need to practice 2 hours today, sometime, at least before I go to bed." Make a time slot for it, and stick by it. By doing that you can avoid interruptions.

3. Preparing to Practice

A. Relax

Without me going into it here, there are a plethora of relaxation techniques. Pick one that works for you. Being relaxed makes the learning process much easier.

B. Regular Exercise

"Whoa, exercise? You mean it?" Yes, I do. It's hard to practice when you are tired or lethargic. Light exercise on a regular basis will help you avoid being lethargic.

C. Leave your instrument on a stand or leave it's case open

If your case is sitting there open, and you can see your guitar, it's certainly a constant reminder to practice. By eliminating having to open the case may be the one thing that motivates you one those really tough days.

D. Listen to recordings of your favorite artist.

This will certainly get you motivated. It works for me as well as many other musicians, as it can be inspiring. It also makes you feel good!

4. Mental Practice

A. Study the piece you are learning

Always read through and try to memorize as much as possible of any new piece you are learning. Decide what fingerings might be best. Look for things that might give you trouble.

B. Try to hear the piece mentally

Play the tune through in your head. This is a good time to visualize what you'll have to do to get through the tune.

C. Sing or hum the piece

Can you sing or hum the tune? This is important, as it will help you when you actually sit down with your instrument and try to work it out. You can have a mental reference to the notes you are trying to play.

D. If available, listen to recording of the piece

This can really help with phrasing, timing, and countless other problems you may encounter. Remember, you are not trying to copy the recording, but merely listening to see how another musician worked through problem areas.

5. Technique

A. Daily and Weekly Goals

Are the goals you are setting including technique related goals?

B. Focus on coordination

Yes, you should think about coordination when you are practicing. Practicing slowly, thinking about what you are doing, and listening closely to what is being played will help with your coordination.

C. Work on Reflexes

Work on "letting go" of your control, playing at fast tempos and strive for fluid movements.

D. Endurance

Problems with endurance are usually indicative of insufficient coordination.

E. Focus on various physical aspects of playing

Are you holding your instrument properly? How's you posture? Is your right hand where it should be? Is you left hand where it should be? Does anything hurt? The old adage "No Pain, No Gain" does not apply here. I know an Upright Bass player who is very good; he uses a number of slides and various techniques in his playing and was asked, "How long did it take to develop callouses to do the things he was doing?" His response was basically that he didn't have calluses and as long as his technique was correct there wouldn't be any, as it didn't really take that much pressure to move the strings. (tip: Don't practice mistakes. They will be come habits. If you find yourself repeating a mistake stop, and identify the problem and work slowly "without" the mistake until you get it to speed.)

6. Problem Solving

As you practice you will certainly encounter many problems and difficulties learning, but most of these can be separated into two categories:

A. Mechanical

Is the problem you are having a physical challenge? This is perhaps the easiest to fix. Analyze your right and left hand movements and focus on your coordination, reflexes, and endurance.

B. Musical

A lot of things can go wrong here. Check your phrasing, fingerings and rhythm. These are the first things that you want to check; in many cases it's one of these things that is causing the problem. Next what about the dynamics, tone, and articulation? These are a bit more difficult to identify but if it's not one of the first three then it's like to be one of these. I have a couple more that I'd like to mention. First, are you really hearing the piece? And have you checked your transcription? Listening once again comes into play. Always Listen.

7. Listening

Learn to hear. Just do it. It's important. Nothing will help you playing more than improving your ear. From my own experience I know that the things I have learned "by ear" have been the tools I've used since. Pieces simply memorized from tab or notation really mean little to me if I don't take time to listen.

What, you ask, do I listen for? Here's a list:

1. Musical Direction
2. Harmony and Harmonic Direction
3. Tone
4. Structure
5. Musical Tension and Release
6. Phrasing
7. Accuracy
8. Style
9. Rhythm

Practice listening for these things. Not only when you are listening to others but also and especially when listening to yourself.

8. Reading Practice

Remember your goals? Is this important? Most likely it is. This should take no more than 30 minutes of your daily practice schedule. Also remember that your reading skills will probably always be behind your actual technical skill, that's okay. But remember when you are choosing music to practice your reading be sure to choose something that is suitable.

There are two approaches. The first is to choose something that is just below your actual playing level.. With this piece look for where the piece would be most likely played. Find the difficult sections and workout a solution. Count the rhythms out loud. Mentally practice the piece. And finally set a metronome at a moderate tempo and play the piece.

The second approach: use a piece that is at your current playing level, or one you will be learning in the near future. Mark phrases and harmonic groups. Study the rhythmic structure. Play through the piece (slowly) keep track of trouble spots. Select fingerings and try to read at least two beats ahead.

The second method certainly is more difficult, but will, in my estimation, work for the active learner. The first method has merit as well. I recommend that you attempt the first method; if you see little or not enough progress then perhaps maybe the second method would serve you better.

9. Repertoire Maintenance

It's a good idea to keep a list of tunes that you have learned. This will help you when you are preparing for a performance or recital. The pieces you plan to play can be practiced daily, but i recommend putting them in rotation, that is, if you have four pieces you plan to do, practice 2 of them today, two others tomorrow. This will give you more time to work on the pieces.

10. Keep a Journal

This is highly recommended. It will allow you to evaluate your progress by giving you written documentation of what you've accomplished. Write down your goals for each day and an evaluation of each thing you did in practice.

11. Playing with Others

There comes a time when you just have to get out there and play with other people. A good way to get a head start on this is to pick up a copy of Band-In-A-Box and start playing along with some of the songs you've worked out. It's not quite the same as having real people, but it's great practice and it will allow you to work at different speeds, and it'll never get tired of playing the same song over and over. It will help your timing and your ability to just "keep going" when you make a small mistake or miss some notes.

Playing along with recordings is of value too. You'll be forced to play along with people, albeit recorded. In many recordings you'll discover that there is an ebb and flow to the beat, and you'll also begin to pick up on the dynamics of playing with a group.

Finally, get out there and find people to play with. The above steps will make the transition from the practice session to the jam session much simpler.

12. Be Creative

Don't neglect taking some time to sit and find new things on your instrument. You might just surprise yourself at some of the ideas that you might have. Remember, if it sounds good, then it's good. Keep a recording of the better ideas so you can refer to them later - you'll be glad you did.


I borrowed liberally from:

The Art & Technique of Practice - Richard Provost - Guitar Solo Publications of San Francisco - 1992

Mel Bay's Complete Flatpicking Guitar - Steve Kaufman - Mel Bay Publications - 1991

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