Practicing: The Three Things You Need to Know

There is a saying amongst musicians, “practice as many days as you eat.” This can be true for anything; tie-ing your shoes, addition, driving, and many other things require practice to get better at it. However, did you know that there is a right and wrong way to practice? Time, quality, and your body all play into account when it comes to practicing.

When students first start instruments, they are often told that the more you practice, the better you will get. This is true, but there is a little more to it. You should play for no more than 20 to 25 minutes straight. You can play longer, but only after 5 minutes of stretching, wiggling, and relaxing your hands and face. As a student learning an instrument, I would start with fifteen minutes and work up to an hour of practice time per day. Any serious musician should practice at least three hours a day. Some musicians I know practice eight hours a day, but it is not always about quantity.

What does it mean to have quality practice time? When you receive a new piece of music, you start by playing it through once. This should show where your problematic areas are. Then you work slowly on those areas giving you trouble; you should be able to play them five times in a row without mistakes, then try adding a little more before and after the troublesome passages. Once you have those spots down, bring them up to a speed where you can play the whole piece at speed, it might not be at tempo just yet. Once you have the whole piece down (down means play through a few times accurately, I like five) at a comfortable tempo, move your metronome up three clicks. Yes, you should be practicing with a metronome to ensure that you are playing at a steady beat and the correct rhythms. Once you are able to play the piece accurately five times in a row, move your metronome up another three clicks. This process continues until you reach the tempo the piece should be played at. Sometimes you might need to backtrack, and that is okay; in fact, you should move the metronome back a few clicks if you are starting a new practice session and you are trying to pick up where you left off. If you start getting frustrated with a piece you are practicing and feel like throwing your instrument across the room, move to another piece and come back to it later. This all might seem very tedious, but it is actually going to help you learn music faster and more accurately than if you just practice playing through at performance speed.  I like to take the saying from The Tortise and the Hare, “slow and steady win the race.”

The body is often the last thing considered when practicing. First thing with your body is to make sure that you are holding and playing your instrument correctly; if you do not have proper support, you may hurt yourself. Next, if any part of your body is in pain, maybe your wrists or shoulders, stop practicing immediately to avoid hurting yourself. If you come to the point where you hurt after a short time of practicing, let’s say 5 minutes, or even before you start practicing, seek medical attention, you have likely hurt yourself. This is why I suggested 5 minute breaks after every 20 to 25 minutes of practicing; it allows time for the muscles to relax or be stretched out. I started this regiment with my wrists after they started hurting when I started driving, but I have had friends who could not play their instruments for months because they ignored their body and developed more severe injuries like tendonitous. So, listen to your body when practicing.

Time, quality, and the body are the three things you need to remember when practicing. If you follow through with this method, you will learn music more quickly and become a better musician.