How to Practice Music (or help your child practice)

| June 9, 2013

how to practice music
When I look back on my guitar-playing “career” of nearly 40 years (I started very young), I can divide the time into two major periods.  The first, lasting 30 years, was before I learned how to practice music, and the second period, for the last 10 years, was after I learned to practice.  Yes, it took me 30 years to learn how to practice music.  It never even occurred to me that I might need to learn how to practice.  I had taken lessons with several teachers over the years and none had ever mentioned anything about how to practice, just that I needed to do it.  I’m stunned by this realization, and yet it is true. Had I learned how to practice earlier, I would have improved my playing immensely and made much faster progress.  It was only my intense love of the instrument and my desire to play that kept me at it, even though my practice was so ineffective.

Even more tragic is that nearly every music student I meet, adults and children, including those going to weekly lessons with a teacher, lacks the same understanding of how to practice music.  And the biggest tragedy of them all is that learning how to practices takes about 10 minutes.  I suspect that the lack of knowing how to practice causes many would-be musicians to quit early on, and believe that they lack talent or ability, all due to a missing 10-minute lesson.

Here’s how most beginner music students practice before learning how to do it right.  The teacher has given them an assignment – in this beginner example it’s an eight-bar song with four notes to the measure, so 32 notes total in the piece.  They sit down to practice by playing the piece and it goes something like this … OK, get in position for the first note … play the first note … now a bit of a delay while remembering  where the second note is … get that fingered … play it …. OK, what’s the third note … oh, yeah, ooh that’s a hard one … OK let’s try it … ugh, that didn’t sound too good, try it again … ugh, another clam, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to play that note, OK keep going … fourth note is where? … OK, geez that’s a stretch … ouch … reach, reach … got it … play it, … where’s the next one … and so on.  After grinding through the 32 notes in about 3 minutes of stumbling they’re finally done.  The piece sounds musical if played in about 20 seconds; however at the 3 minute rate what they got didn’t sound like music and their fingers or other body parts hurt and they’re wondering how much longer and how many times more do they need to grind through the piece to get better.  Does this sound familiar to you, or to your child?

This method of practice just convinces the student how hard it is to play, and how little fun it is to practice.  Combine this with a slow rate of improvement, some self-doubt, maybe a desire to go play outside, or thoughts about maybe starting too late in life, and it’s easy to see why quitting becomes a real possibility.  All this because a practice method is being used that doesn’t address the central challenge in learning to play a musical instrument – muscle memory. You’ve probably heard the term “muscle memory” but may not know that it’s a term used by muscle physiologists to describe activities that are learned and become automatic.   Basically all of your muscles learn how to work together, with the right timing, pressure and speed to do whatever you have “memorized” through repetition.  And once the memorization is accomplished, the muscles not only know “how” to do something, they know how to do it automatically.  This is the essential building block of playing a musical instrument – the playing without thinking – whether it’s a note, a chord or a scale.

Now let’s go back and look at our practicing.  When we grind through the piece, with lengthy gaps and repeated errors between notes, we’re not only making it hard, we’re preventing any useful muscle-memory development.  Muscles need rhythmic repetition for the best memory gains.  And without that, most of our practice effort is wasted.

The Powerful Secret of How to Practice Music

So what’s the right way?  Let’s go back to the piece our teacher gave us.  This time we’re going to just practice the first two notes, first slowly, then faster and faster, until we can play just those two notes well and at a musical speed.  If we’re playing one of the classic songs of beginner music, “Lightly Row,” we’re just going to play the two notes for “light-ly” over and over.  I encourage the student or their helper to sing along, and sing the un-played beats, so it sounds like “light – ly – three – four, light – ly – three – four, light – ly – three – four    …” with the student only playing the first two beats.  We may have to start very slowly (35 beats per minute (BPM) on a metronome) to get these notes at first, but once we can play them very slowly, we raise the metronome speed (or pencil tapping, or whatever) in small increments.  With each increase in speed we take care that the notes are still being played correctly, and in proper time. With my 7-year old daughter on the piano, we’ll keep raising the tempo (I tap) until it’s so fast I can’t sing any faster and she falls off the piano bench laughing.  That’s what we want – fun, speed and muscle memory, in an exercise that took a few minutes.

Then we add the third note – back to 35 BPM “light – ly – row – four, light – ly – row – four …”.   Use the same drill, start slow, bring the speed up, go fast.   Then we add the fourth note.  At this point the student is playing a full measure of music asmusic – there’s a beat, there’s a clear melody, there’s singing and fun, and the muscles are soaking it all in.

By the time we’ve gotten through a full measure (four notes), maybe 15 minutes have gone by, and it’s a good time to stop. I find that muscle-memory is enhanced by some intensity (playing as fast as you can, but still with good time) followed by a pause.  The pause could be for 30 minutes if the student is anxious to do more, to a few hours, to the next day. Whatever works for the situation is fine.  When the next practice session begins, repeat the process of 2, 3, 4 notes if needed, or just get started on adding the fifth note if the student is ready.  The key is to always use the same drill – first slowly, then faster.

Does this method work for more advanced players? Definitely.  More advanced players may not need to go as slow as 35 BPM, or you may need to go even slower.  Whatever initial speed allows you to play those first two notes well is fine, whether it’s 20 BPM or 80 BPM.  You may be practicing something far more complex than a single note “Lightly Row” song but you’ll still use the same approach.  If the first two notes are sixteenth notes, practice those and add the next when ready.  If you can play most of a piece very well, but there’s one stumbling point, then just use the practice technique at the stumbling point.  If what you’re playing is a multi-note chord, or something that is complex due to the coordination of two hands, you can break-down the first two notes and just start with the left hand (on a piano) until that’s mastered and then add the right hand. Whatever you need to do to get the first two notes played slowly and well is your starting point.

Photo credit: Christophe Verdier / / CC BY-NC


Category: Instrument Practice

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