How to practice your instrument
Updated: Dec 19, 2018
In your instrumental lesson, it is easy to know what to do, because you have your teacher sitting next to guide you in what to do. But what do you do in-between your lessons, when you have no teacher next to you and have forgotten the way your teacher told you to practice something.
This blog will look at some strategies that I use when practising and what I advise my students to do.
How long to practice?
This depends on a lot of things, including your age, your level of ability, what you are preparing for and other time commitments. I recommend for my beginner students that they should be spending at least the minimum of 10/15 minutes every 4 to 5 days. Increasing to 25/30 minutes every 5 to 6 days for students preparing for grade 1 exams.
It's better to do small amounts of regular practice over the week, then do one big practice session before your lesson. My previous post talks about the importance of regular practice.
It is a good idea to practice your instrument at the same time every day. This way it becomes part of your normal daily routine.
When I am busy, or I have a lot of things that I need to practice, I will put practising in my diary to make sure I’ve got the time to do it.
What to do first?
The first thing that I do when I sit at the piano to practice is to plan what I am going to practice during the session. This can be done away from your instrument.
Have a look at what your teacher has told you to work on during the week. Then decide what you are going to practice. If there are any particular sections that your teacher wants you to work on, then make a note of them, and make sure you get time to practice them.
Scales and technical exercises
Start your practice session by doing scales and technical exercises if you have been given them. Take your time with them, trying to make sure that you still play them musically.
If you have lots of scales to practice, then there are many different ways to practice them. I will do another post on this at a later date.
To get through all my scales at least once, more if they needed some extra work on it. I would write out all the scales on slips of paper. I would then take two jam jars and put them all in the one jar. Out of that jar, I would see how many scales I could play through 3 times correctly in a particular time frame. If I could play the scale 3 times correctly, then they would go in the 2nd jar, if I struggled to pay the scale correctly 3 times, then they would go back into the jar with the other scales, to be practised later in the week. Once all the scales were in the other jar, I would swap the jars over.
Playing through a piece of music from top to bottom is just one way to practice a piece. I will only run through a whole piece once or twice during a practice session, especially if it is a long piece.
The problem with running through a whole piece, or start practising a piece from the beginning, is that you just keep practising the beginning and often sections that need working on nearer the middle or the end, are quite often forgotten or rushed. This is why I will plan my practice deciding on what sections of a piece I will practice.
Once I have decided on the section that I want to look at, there are many different strategies that I can use to help me practice. Here is a couple of them.
Slowly - this probably the most crucial strategy that I could use. Slow, deliberate practice trains your fingers, wrists and arms, what and where they need to be. Much like a dancer would slowly mark out their steps when they are releasing. It is essential only to play a piece as fast as you can play the most challenging section. That way the whole piece will have consistent speed.
Magic number 3 - I will take a small section ( a bar or two) and see if I can play it through 3 times in a row correctly, before moving on.
A bar and a beat - This is an extension of the strategy above. I will take a small section ( a bar or less) once I can play it 3 times correctly, I will then add on a beat either side and repeat the exercise.
Counting and Clapping - If I am struggling with the rhythm. I will work out how to subdivide the bear, if necessary. I will then count out loud and clap the rhythm at the same time. If it is is a piano piece I will tap both hands on my knees.
Hand separately - if it is a piano piece I will practice hands separately and then put together. If it is a piece where one hand will play different parts that I will also practice each part independently with the fingers that I would use, then part those parts together. While doing separate hand practice, I will also add the articulation and the dynamics.
End of practice
At the end of each practice session, I reflect on what I have done. I make a note of anything that needs further work on to help me to plan my next practice session.
I give each of my students a practice diary which helps them to plan their practices and also gives them a list of the strategies to know how to practice each piece.