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Tips for Practicing Your Instrument

Practice Your Instrument


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Have you ever
struggled with practicing your instrument? Do you need tips for practicing your
instrument? Worry not because today we will discuss some strategies that you
maybe overlooking.

It is important
to understand that one person’s ideal practice session may look quite different
from another. Depending on your goals, energy, structure, time allotment, and
focus, these elements will determine if you have a satisfying practice session
or not.  

Structural
Considerations

How to start and
end a practice session is important. What is more important to you? Feeling
good at the beginning and ends of your practice time? For example, you could start
with scales and end with a review of something that you enjoy playing. Others
may consider jumping into the meat of what needs to be improved. Could you leave
a practice session knowing you had worked on something difficult the whole time
and had limited success?

Another consideration
to reflect on is what order do you want to work on things? Maybe your routine
is especially important to you, and you treat a practice session almost like a to-do
checklist. In contrast, maybe you are a person that needs to practice in a way
where what you do feels new and refreshing. For example, you may vary the order
or practice components you do from day to day.

Most musicians I
know recommend that you dedicate a certain amount of time to different
components of playing. For example, start with a five-minute warm-up, followed
by ten-minutes on etudes, then ten-minutes on a new piece and then followed by something
that you enjoy playing. The choice is yours. Even when you decide to practice
in a way that is less efficient, you learn what does not work and you can try
something new the next day. I, personally, learned this the hard way during the
late night, multi-hour practice sessions before the day of college trombone
lessons.

Ultimately, the
clearer you set your musical goals the easier it will be to practice
effectively. Be sure that you can distinguish between your short-term, mid-term
and long-term goals. An example of these would include:

  • Your
    short-term goal could be to memorize a piece of music or play a
    selection of 16-measures 15 times through without making a mistake.
  • For your
    mid-term goal
    you could master a particular method book or play a series of
    solos.
  • And
    for your long-term goal you could join an elite band or play a solo
    recital by the end of the year.

Practicing
Technique

Improving your
tone, increasing muscle control speed and learning a new piece does not happen
by putting the instrument to the face. Practicing efficiency plays a key role
in meeting your goals.

One way of
improving your technique is to break down a technique goal into several smaller
goals. For instance, say your larger weekly goal was to learn a piece in a
week. Break this down into smaller chunks as goals. For instance, Monday I will
master measures one through eight, Tuesday nine through sixteen and so on. This
way you will have a series of smaller successes everyday rather than one a week.

Practice Slowly

Another way of
practicing technique is to take a piece and break it into sections. These would
include several bars that focus on a specific type of a skill. While focusing
on this skill be sure to practice these specific measures everyday so that the
skill is gets regular, repetitive practice.

The benefit to
lots of repetition is that the mind stores the skill into your long-term memory
bank. Unfortunately, this is a two-edged sword. The reason for this is because
if you are practicing and some of your technique is incorrect or if you let the
wrong notes occur when you practice, this will be stored in your memory banks. Consequently,
you can only expect to perform as well as you have practiced. Commit this to
memory because if you want a stellar performance, you must practice in a stellar
capacity.

Some experienced
music educators may recall the “five or ten” rule. This is when you or your
students are advised to move on to the next section only if they can correctly
play the current section correctly five to ten times without a mistake. Others
may not be concerned with this concept if the final performance is correct.
Regardless, the “five or ten” rule is beneficial in your practice session
because it reinforces the idea that your fingers “remember” to move at the
right times.

Probably one of
the most used strategies for improving technique is to “slow down.” Often,
players will attempt to play somewhat difficult music and will fail to play the
music completely correct five times in a row, if at all. As most music
directors do in rehearsals, they take the time to slow things down. In some
cases, really slowing things down is necessary.

Use a metronome
and significantly slow down a passage so that there are no mistakes. Focus on
correct notes, rhythm, pitch, and tone to this ultra-slow tempo. Now that this
can be done five times in a row without any mistakes, very slowly bring up the
metronome tempo by a couple clicks. Little by little be critical of every
musical element and bring up the tempo. Eventually you will be able to play to
tempo with all the musical elements mastered.

Practicing a
New Piece

There are a
variety of ways for learning a new piece of music. This goes beyond learning
small chucks of music and then repeating them until your fingers fall off.

To start,
consider learning a piece of music as a new challenge. The actual skill of improving
and learning a work of art on the spot can and will improve over time if you
subject yourself to regular sight-reading. Remember this skill can be practiced
at the advanced or beginning levels, so make it a point to include
sight-reading into your practice routine.

Sheet music

As mentioned
before, getting into the habit of playing correct notes the first time leads to
more effective practice. One way to improve this qualitative experience is to
listen to a new piece prior to playing it. This could be through digital, cd or
any other means. In fact, make it a point to play a piece live on your
instrument for your students.

In addition, you
can enhance this experience by reading along in the music while a recording of
the music is being played. This gives you and your students the opportunity to
check out various accidentals, repeats, dynamics, and other roadmap indicators prior
to sight-reading the music.

As a music educator,
it would also be wise to take advantage of the opportunity to teach your
students the piece’s musical form. Perhaps you can provide history about the
composition, provide insights about the composer, or even comment on the social
and cultural factors that influenced its production.

If you have a
class of beginning musicians, it may be wise to learn a piece in steps. You can
start by first counting and clapping the rhythms in the piece. Then when the rhythm
is worked out, try playing the melody without focusing heavily on the rhythm.
Next, you would, very slowly, combine the two skills. Separating these major musical
components at first and then bringing them back into the “big picture” by
combining the skills is a practice strategy used by all levels of musicians.

Ultimately, at one
time or another you will come to the “trouble spots” in a piece. Some people
will decide to play through a piece and others will try to fix these trouble
spots as they go. This maybe more helpful when you are still going through the
process of becoming familiar with the piece. Whereas others may try to identify
where the tricky locations are in the piece first and then try to correct them
prior to playing the music in its entirety.

Note, that there
are some trouble areas that will continue to frustrate you and it may seem that
your efforts may be a huge waste of time. Consider determining what is the true
cause of the frustration rather than using a huge amount of time pounding out a
section of music. This could be a fingering issue, rhythm issue or even a note
that is just outside of your range. Once you have truly determined what the
real issue is, then alter your way of thinking so that you can brainstorm the questions
and solutions to resolve the real issue at hand. This process can be aided by
the support of a music teacher, however, is also commonly discovered on the musicians
own efforts when they are in right frame of mind.

Memorizing
New Music

Whether or not a
student should memorize music is up in the air. Some music teachers live by
this philosophy where others feel it is optional.

Let us first
identify why someone would feel memorizing a piece is important.

  • Firstly,
    by memorizing a piece of music it should make you feel like you are becoming a
    better musician. The rationale behind this is since if you have a piece of
    music memorized then you do not have to focus on reading it. Ultimately, if this
    focus is freed up then you can focus on more of the musical elements like tone,
    dynamics, and style. 
  • By
    memorizing your music, it makes you appear more professional. Many professional
    soloists memorize their music, and this is an associated perspective you may
    want to be a part of.
  • An
    additional benefit to memorizing your music is that it also gives you the
    opportunity to see what is physically happening with your fingers or your embouchure
    in a mirror.

Next, lets
identify why someone would not want to force student musicians to memorize
music.

  • First,
    having a student memorize their music for a performance adds a lot or unwanted
    stress.
  • Often
    students worry about the “what if” scenario forgetting their piece. This
    unwanted anxiety often takes away the positive and musical energy that would
    normally be used to enhance the musicality of the piece.
  • Finally, students who are not good at memorizing music often spend way too mucg time on making a difficult task barrable. As a result, often this time is used practicing the structural components of the music rather than focusing on what the student really needs to do to make the music aesthetically pleasing.

Tips for
Memorizing Music

If you insist on
memorizing your music the following are tips and tricks for doing so in a
variety of ways.

  • Memorize
    a piece of music as you learn it. Remember if you cannot play the piece of music
    correctly, you are not doing it right.
  • Memorize
    in short sections at a time.
  • Focus
    on memorizing the hard sections first.
  • Try memorizing
    the piece starting from the back to the front. This way you end up creating a
    good last impression.
  • When
    memorizing music try to use the honor system. Play the piece memorized and only
    look at the music when you absolutely must.
  • Analyze
    and study a section of music using the step-by-step method. This approach adds
    layers of musical nuance to your practice efforts and helps you memorize music
    from a visual and kinesthetic perspective.
  • Memorize
    your piece away from your instrument. Try playing or singing through your piece
    with an imaginary “air” instrument. Just imagine how good some of those “air guitarists”
    are out in the world.
  • Try
    creating a story that follows the stylistic traits of the musical piece.
  • Remember
    that slow practice and repetition are always great tools for memorizing a
    piece.
  • When
    you think you are almost done memorizing the piece, put the notated music away.
    Then play your piece. Sometimes muscle memory and the subconscious mind fills
    in the blanks that you can’t remember.

Final
Thoughts

Learning how to
practice and what works for us is a challenge that all musicians encounter at some
point in our lives. What works for you one week may not a month later. It is
important to evaluate your practice efficiency and then re-evaluate it again
and again. Hopefully, you can pull some helpful tid-bits of information out of
this post that will help you master your musical domain.

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