Learning how to practice music is an essential part in being able to play the most beautiful, the grooviest or even the most fun music you can play. While this post was written from the perspective of an instrumental flute player, the basics can be applied to almost any instrument (even voice, although some parts may not be relevant).

The Short & Sweet

  • Practice consistently, around 5 times a week. Practice for as long as it takes to do what you planned to do, this can be from 10 minutes up to several hours
  • Practice your scales and arpeggios; don't skip them!
  • Practice with a metronome to know the rhythm of the piece
  • Actively listen to the piece; it's more important than you think
  • Slow down a hard passage until you can play it, then slowly speed up
  • Don't just practice a piece by playing through it, pick out parts you need to work on
  1. Warm up
  2. Play scales and arpeggios
  3. Listen to the piece
  4. Practice with a metronome
  5. Practice the piece!

How much & how long should I practice?

There is no specific amount of time you should practice. However, to truly know and learn your piece, you should set aside time several days a week. It's preferred to practice five times a week, however the key to practice is that it should be consistent.

 The amount of time you practice should be enough to cover what you want to practice. This includes scales, lesson pieces, band pieces and your general musicality. The practice time can be as short as 10 minutes for an absolute beginner to several hours a day for the truly dedicated musician.

What should I practice & how should I practice?

Scales and arpeggios

Many people wonder, what’s the point of practising scales and arpeggios? To many, scales and arpeggios are just busy work that your teacher wants for you to be able to execute. However, scales and arpeggios are important as they come up often in the pieces you play. By learning them, it will allow you to play the pieces much easier. Practising scales and arpeggios also helps your sight reading as it allows you to understand what key a certain piece is in. This then helps you speed up the pace in which you are able to learn the piece.
If you are improvising then scales and arpeggios are invaluable as understanding them back to front will let you improvise in a much more efficient manner. So get to practising those scales and start grooving on you cool cat!
Don't just play the scales and arpeggios mindlessly; play them differently, play them slurred, play them in triplets, play them in different rhythms, play each note several times, play them anyway you want. Learning scales allows you to expand your musical ability.

Practice with a metronome

To understand the rhythm and tempo of the piece, it is essential to practice with a metronome. Playing with a metronome allows the musician (you!) to understand where the beat falls in different sections of a piece and how it should be played. A metronome should help you understand the piece better and establish an inner metronome and a sense of tempo.
Knowing what tempo a certain piece is by the beats per minute alone can help immensely in how you play both new pieces and pieces that you already know.
There are several free apps on iOS and Android available which you can use. They are portable, so you can have a metronome on hand at all times!

Listen to the recording!

Many times we start to play a new piece without listening to the recording. This is a grave mistake as we want to know what the piece should sound like. Without knowing that, how are you going to play the piece properly?
Listening to the recording, while seemingly unproductive as you are not actively playing your instrument, accounts for much of the practice you do later as you are able to practice the piece with an idea of what it should sound like. 
Listening to the recording, however, is not enough. You must actively listen to it. Really listen to how the piece is being played; the rhythm, the tempo, the dynamics, the musicality and everything in between. Following along with your sheet music is essential to listening as well.

Sight Reading

When we first get a new piece to play, it may seem daunting as to how you can ever play it at all. You see the tempo and instantly panic, or you look at all those demisemiquavers or those three tied semibreves and just think of how you will ever play them. There is a general process of learning to sight read, and with practice you will get better.
    1. Look at the tempo and the time signature. What key is it in and what is the style of the piece? Is it swung? Does it have an interesting time signature? This allows you to be in the mindset of the piece and sets the foundation on how you approach the music
    2. Look over the music. Note interesting rhythms or any sharps and flats that may occur. Where does the dynamic start and change? Is there a DS al Coda? Look over the piece and see if there is anything interesting that you will have to play.
    3. Play slowly. If you are starting a new piece marked at 200bpm then there is no point in playing up to tempo if you cannot play all the notes. Slow down to an achievable speed so you can actually play the piece.
    4. Do not be afraid of wrong notes. Try to understand the rhythm of the piece and how it flows. The notes are just busy work you can practice later.

Playing difficult passages

Perhaps the piece you are practicing has a really difficult passage. There may be a large amount of notes or the rhythm is not what you are used to. To conquer these difficult passages:

  1. Look over the individual notes you will have to play. Are the fingerings difficult? How should you adjust your embouchure to pitch the right note or tempo?
  2. Look at the rhythm of the passage. How long is each note? Is it swung? Where are the rests?
  3.  Play the piece until you get to point where you cannot play effectively. Here you will need to slow down the entire passage until you get to a point where you can play it properly
  4. Play the passage several times in a row without making any mistakes. If you do make a mistake, restart and slow down if necessary
  5. Slowly speed up the passage, remembering to play it several times in a row without making any mistakes

Remember, practicing incorrectly every single time and then trying again is not the right way to practice long and difficult passages. Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes permanent.

What to practice in a piece

Do not just play a piece from start to end, only replaying once to get a certain passage correct. This is not productive in any way.
You can play the piece from the start to see where you need to improve and stop when you notice something you need to work on. Maybe it's the fingering or it wasn't loud enough. At this point, you need to practice the certain passage until you get it right. Play it several times to get it into your head. Make sure to play the passage in the context of the piece so you can play the entire piece without any choppy transitions.
You can also just go straight to the area you know you need to practice and then do the aforementioned process of practicing it until you get it right. Playing as if you're performing is also a good idea and will help you get into the mindset of performance. When practicing like this, you should not stop until you finish the piece so you know what places you need to work on once you have finished 'practice performing'.

Anything else?

Hopefully these tips should help you practice music in a much more effective manner and allow you to smash out your pieces, or play them beautifully, or in any other way you want.
Other general study tips also apply here as well:

  • Find a place to practice
  • Take breaks if you are practicing for a long time
  • Know what you're going to practice
  • Relax

Post written by Mark

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