Practice Smart, Not Hard

There is a saying I’ve heard among musicians, “you only need to practice as many days as you eat.” While this is a good guide to live by, it misses two very important things. One, how long should I practice? And two, how should I practice? As a youth, I would play through my songs and pieces at speed anywhere between fifteen minutes and six hours a day (the latter was high school). But, there is a difference between playing through and methodically practicing, in other words, if you practice efficiently you can accomplish more in less time than just playing through several times. You’ll need your instrument, music, a metronome, and self-discipline. Here are the steps I take:

1. Start Slow

You are probably familiar with the saying “slow and steady wins the race.” The same couldn’t be more true when learning a new piece of music. Start as slow as you need to go to play the pitches and rhythms accurately. If you have a certain passage giving you more trouble than the rest of the piece, work out that passage, then slowly add the rest of the piece. If you are unsure of a passage or having too much difficulty figuring it out on your own, do not be afraid to ask for help.

2. Aim for Accuracy

Staying at a slow pace, you should work to play the whole piece accurately (pitches, rhythms, dynamics, etc.). It can be grueling, but I say you should be able to play the piece five times IN A ROW without making mistakes. Once you are able to do that, than you can go on to the next step.

3. Steadily Increase Tempo

Once you can play accurately those five times in a row, than you can increase the tempo or speed by two or three bpm’s (beats per minute). Once you’ve done this, then aim for the goal in step two of playing five times in a row accurately. After you’ve done that, increase the tempo again by 2 or 3 bpm’s. Keep repeating this process until you’ve reach the recommended performance tempo.

That’s basically it. It might seem like a painfully slow process, but once you get through the first step, the rest usually comes pretty quick. Not only do you learn the piece more quickly, you also learn it more accurately because you’re not retraining your brain to unlearn your mistakes.

As a bonus, here are a few other ideas you can incorporate with your first step:

Sight-read the first time. Not only does it work on your ability to read on the spot without stopping or starting over, it also helps you discover the passages you have the most trouble with.

Mark your part. If you have made the same mistake more than once, than make some sort of mark that you can easily read while playing (i.e. mark a natural next to that note you keep playing flat).

Work from the end to the beginning. Most people remember the beginning and end of a piece, but sometimes you practice the beginning so much, that it is flawless and the rest of the piece is jumbled. With this exercise, you start with the last measure, add the previous measure and play them both accurately together, and keep repeating the process until you get to the first measure.

That’s all I have. If you liked this post, be sure to give a like and share with others. If you liked a certain idea or have one of your own, leave your thoughts in the comments.

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