Written by Jonathan Davis
One of the most common questions that music students have is “How much should I practice?” A better question is not how much a student should practice but how they should practice. While the time spent practicing is certainly an important part of learning an instrument, many other factors pertaining to practice need to be addressed in order for progress to be made.
Practice does not make perfect, practice makes permanent.
If you are repeatedly making the same mistakes during practice, all you are doing is training yourself to make mistakes. In order to make sure you are playing correctly, slow down and shorten the section you are working on. Not only does dividing music into smaller sections and slowing it down produce a better end result, it is a much faster way to learn music as opposed to trying to mash through large sections all at once.
Emphasize keeping up the good along with fixing the bad.
When I see a student correctly play a difficult passage that they have been struggling with, I will always ask them, “What was different about that attempt than those before that failed?” Often, the student will shrug and figure that they got lucky. You need to make sure you know exactly how you fixed a problematic section so that you can keep doing what worked and so the section will stay fixed. Focus on the positive (what you should be doing) rather than harping on the negative (what you are doing wrong).
Change it up.
No matter how much you like ice cream, if you started eating it at every meal, you would get sick of it. Even if you enjoy playing your instrument and love a particular song you are learning, you are going to eventually burn out if that is the only thing you do. If you get into a rut where you just do not feel like practicing, try out some new genres, incorporate some new technique exercises, or do something as simple as practicing in a different room to make things feel fresh again. I try to have my students practice three distinct aspects of music, for example: chords, songs, and improvising. Three different subjects to work on is enough to rotate through and not get bored, but not so much to work on that it becomes overwhelming.
Have a very clear idea of what you are trying to accomplish when you sit down to practice. I like to divide what I am working on into short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals. Short-term goals entail what you are trying to accomplish in a practice session, such as working out your breath placement in a vocal passage, memorizing the lyrics to a verse, getting a measure or a single line clear and in time on a keyboard, or memorizing a chord pattern on the guitar.
These short-term goals feed into your medium-term goals, which refer to what you would like to accomplish in about a week to a month. These could include learning an entire song, moving your maximum speed on a scale up 10 beats per minute, or becoming more comfortable switching positions on the keyboard seamlessly.
Finally, the medium-term goals will let you accomplish your long-term goals (which start at about a month and may span years!) such as learning enough songs for a full live performance set, raising your overall skill level to be able to play more advanced repertoire, or making your own recording. When working on short-term goals gets to be mundane, remember the bigger things that you are working towards.
Place and Time.
Try to have a dedicated space to practice. Ideally, it should be comfortable and free of distractions. Personally, I need to leave my phone and laptop in another room. When I was in school, I would frequently go practice in their dedicated practice rooms instead of staying at home since there would be nothing else for me to do other than practice. At home, I would inevitably get distracted.
For parents, you need to be involved in your child’s practicing and practice schedule. For athletic extracurricular activities, kids need to be taken to practices. Would they still practice without getting a ride? While learning an instrument is fun and rewarding, practicing is work and frustrating at times. Communicate with your child’s teacher to know what they should be working on and what their goals should be.
For everyone, consistently practicing daily is key (as opposed to practicing for a long time on one day and then not touching the instrument for a couple days after). Even when things get busy, just sitting down for 5 minutes can make a big difference in terms of retaining the progress you have already made.