The Art Of Practicing

The Art Of Practicing Music

by Adrian Moring

Practicing music, just like playing music is truly an art unto itself.  As one searches for new musical concepts and instrumental techniques, it becomes apparent that it takes a perfect balance of mental and physical energy to progress.  In addition to this, learning to listen intently and critically to yourself is a large part of practice and development as a musician. When developing a routine for practicing, it is important to take a step back and truly compare the sound you hear in your head to the sound you produce on your instrument.  In doing this, you not only give yourself more tools to work with, you also develop a strong and discerning ear for music.

Develop A Relationship With Your Instrument

The first step in this journey is to develop a relationship with your instrument on a technical level.  Although this may seem like the most superficial part of your journey, it is imperative to lay a strong foundation as to controlling the sound of your instrument.  A musician with good technique is often thought of as someone who can play very fast or complicated passages. This could not be further from the truth. A musician with good technique is someone that can execute the sound that they hear in their head while not doing permanent damage to their body.  Learning from a good teacher that can tell you if your shoulders are slumped down or are not maintaining a proper embouchure can make a world of difference as you continue to play. Tendonitis and chop problems are common afflictions amongst musicians. Having a teacher to discourage bad habits that would lead to these problems is important and will allow you to keep performing.  Scales, arpeggios, long tones and technical exercises derived from books are great ways to develop your technique on your instrument. Strive to be creative with these technical practices as well. If you are fluid with the C Major scale, move to a new key. Practice all of these things at different tempos as well. Once you feel comfortable with scales and arpeggios in all twelve keys, try composing your own exercises that target your weak points.  There is an endless wealth of options that one can undertake in the technical world of music.

Organize Your Time

The key to successful practicing is finding a balance with all of your daily activities and routines. Organizing your practice session before picking up your instrument is critical to taking advantage of the allotted time.  Writing out a detailed schedule for practicing, or at least having a game plan in mind, can make the most out of any block of time. An hour long practice session is ideal, but consistency is the key element. Here is an example schedule:

  1. Long Tones with Metronome (10 minutes)
  2. Scales and Arpeggios with Metronome (15 Minutes)
  3. Isolated Practice of Challenging Passages within a piece of music(10 minutes)
  4. Playing with a record or playing through musically fulfilling solo pieces such as anything written by Bach (25 minutes)

With even more time, you can delve into each category for longer periods.  Bach is a great example because there is such a wealth of inspiration in one piece, that his whole catalog will take lifetimes to fully consume and digest.  Find something that inspires you, and delve as deep as you can into it. You will be surprised how many layers you will uncover in the music.

Listen To Yourself

After a period of focused and dedicated practice, you will see definitive improvement in your playing.  This can be an equally gratifying and addicting feeling. If you develop a rigid routine and do it every day the same way, it will improve your playing for a while until you may experience what some teachers refer to as “leveling out”.  This is when you have improved for a time, until you reach a point where your routine merely keeps you on the same level of musicianship. This can be discouraging, but the way to combat this is to change up your routine. This is where we must apply the skill of “listening to ourselves”.  As we play, the physical act of what we are doing can take over our mental state. Using cheap recording techniques such as the Voice Memo function on a smartphone is an excellent way to exit the one-sided experience of playing our instruments. Listen back intently and critically.

  1. What parts of your playing do you enjoy and want to pursue further?  
  2. What parts of your playing need improvement?
  3. Can you hear beyond the notes you are playing and judge the quality of your work?

Listen to your favorite musicians on your instrument and do an A/B comparison with your recording.  What is different, and what do you think the next step is in your journey? Keep this awareness throughout your musical career.  Learn how to critically listen to yourself and you will deepen how you listen to others.

Music is a far cry from science and many hours practicing your instrument does not necessarily equal improvement. However, if we strive to stay aware and open to new musical ideas, in addition to practicing diligently, we will achieve a new level of musicianship.