‘Practice makes perfect’, or so the adage goes. I’m not sure about the ‘perfect’ part, but I do know that through regular practice we can improve significantly, provided that we practise in the right way.
This article gives some pointers on how, and how much, to practise, based on my experience and observations as a student at the Royal College of Music, and years of experience as a musician and teacher.
Choose from one of the categories below to jump to the section you want to read about, or simply read the article from start to finish (it's not long).
|Quantity||Practice with Others|
For sustained progress regular practice is essential. This means setting aside a time every day for practice. As a child this wasn’t too difficult. I scheduled my main practice session for 6.00 – 6.30pm, a time selected to coincide with the television news, in which I had no interest. As an adult, it can be more difficult to find time, but still necessary. In addition to a main practice session, for pianists in particular, an odd five minutes here and ten minutes there can be very effective in supplementing regular practice time.
How much practice should we do? Specifying a quantity is difficult as it very much depends on individual circumstances, such as your level (advanced players require much more practice than beginners), instrument (physical limitations make it impossible to practise some instruments for extended periods of time), and your goal (aspiring professionals need more practice than people who only want to play for their own pleasure).
As a student at the Royal College of Music in London (the splendid building pictured right), I knew first-study pianists who would practise the piano quite literally all day (all students were required to study two instruments, the main instrument being designated ‘first-study’, and the second instrument ‘second-study’). I can’t say the same about first-study brass and woodwind players, simply because the lips and lip muscles are not strong enough to be used to play an instrument all day every day.
Quality of practice is arguably more important than quantity, and, leaving aside natural talent, could account for why some players who appear to practise little manage to play so well. I witnessed this at the Royal College of Music, and knew exceptionally good players who practiced little (little being a relative term). I didn’t realise then the true importance of practice quality.
Closely linked to ‘quality’ is ‘focus’. During practice we must focus on the particular aspect, element, or technique we are trying to improve, and aim to make every note and phrase we play the very best we can – first time! It’s a tall order, but necessary.
We must practise until we get things right first time every time! To do this repetition is the key. By repeating something many times we can make it 'automatic’. We train ourselves to automatically do what is needed to get the note or phrase exactly right every time. I remember my piano teacher at the Royal College of Music pointing out that if we get a phrase wrong nine times, and right on the tenth attempt, this is actually practising how to get something wrong! Playing something wrong the first time, and right the following nine times is much better, and a step on the way to getting it right the first time.
Warming up before the start of a practice session is very important. Just as an athlete warms up before going into action, musicians too must ‘warm up’. The type of warm up will depend on the instrument we play.
In order to improve we need targets, i.e. something to aim for. This could be something as simple as completing a music book, to playing in small concerts, taking music exams, or entering competitions.
See the related article Entering Music Competitions.
Keeping a record of how much practice we do can be useful. It shows us, at a glance, how much practice we have been doing, and can shame us into doing more. However, it’s important that our focus remains on practice content, and not on how many more minutes we can add to our total practice time.
Practising with others is a good way to make practice more enjoyable. Playing duets, playing in ensembles or bands, accompanying or being accompanied, all help with timing, endurance, focus, and more. In fact the whole interaction with other musicians can be nothing but beneficial. Plenty of individual practice is still necessary though.
Practice doesn’t end at playing a piece of music as well as we can. Unless we are content to play only for our own pleasure, we must practise playing in front of people, from friends and family to complete strangers. This is because most musicians get nervous, and nerves severely impede our ability to relax and play well. For some musicians, both amateurs and professionals alike, nerves diminish with age and experience, while others always get nervous. Nerves aren’t necessarily a bad thing, provided we learn to overcome them. This is done by practice.
It is possible to over practice. Practising when we are physically or mentally tired ceases to be productive and can even be detrimental. Over practice by brass players, for example, can easily lead to strained lip muscles, preventing any useful practice for two or three day’s while the muscles recover.
We can all achieve a certain level with a minimum amount of practice, but that certain level is different for everyone, and never very high. Whatever we do it is only through practice that we can improve. Following the advice and suggestions in this article will help to maximise that improvement in the minimum amount of time.
Becoming a proficient instrumentalist requires a lot of practice, but becoming a professional, or even semi-professional musician requres a whole lot more. For anyone interested in a career in music I can recommend the book Breaking into the Music Business: An Essential Guide for Performers. Based on my 30 years experience as a performing musician and teacher, it is packed with useful tips, information and advice.