9 Commandments to Practicing Your Instrument

Updated: Dec 12, 2020

When professional musicians practice their instrument, it is not an unstructured period of time where they play their instrument haphazardly. Practicing is an extremely important process to becoming a better musician, and there are important things to follow when doing so. Here are some tips that apply to any instrument, and will make sure you are utilizing your time as efficiently as possible.

1. Practice makes permanent, not perfect.

The adage “practice makes perfect” is one that has been repeated ad nauseum, but it is actually not completely accurate. For one, perfection can never be achieved. You should remember that if you practice, all you are doing is making the things that you practice set in stone. If you practice with a certain mistake, and keep practicing with that mistake or inconsistency, you will only make that mistake permanent. Knowing this, it is important to utilize “perfect practice.” You should practice as if you are performing and playing to the best of your abilities all the time. This way, the only habits you make permanent are the good ones. Practice slow and make sure you are consistent before increasing the tempo.

2. Spread out your practice.

When practicing, it is important to space out your practicing. If you can manage to practice for several hours a day without burning out, then you may do so. However,, it is significantly better to practice for 15-30 minutes each day than practicing for two hours twice a week. Making sure you practice every day will help lock in skills and ensure that you aren’t wearing yourself out. If you are practicing for 2 hours, chances are that you will be worn out after an hour, making the final hour an inefficient use of time. Overall, maintaining consistency is key to practicing efficiently.

3. Organize your practice sessions.

Creating order in your practice sessions will go a long way. If you practice for an hour a day, consider spending 30 minutes on warmups and technique, 20-25 on learning a piece, and the rest on an additional piece or other fun things. You can adjust this to fit the time you spend studying and the strengths you want; if you are not focused on a piece you can devote more time to working on exercises and technique, etc. Keeping a loose schedule to the way you practice will ensure that you are getting to everything you need to, and steadily improving as a musician.

4. Chunk your music and contextualize it.

To chunk music is exactly what it sounds like; to break it into smaller parts. This can be a short phrase, a measure, or even a couple notes that are difficult to play. Chunking and zeroing in on “problem sections” will fix up those spots, as long as you remember that practice makes permanent. If you have a section that trips you up, focus there at a very slow tempo, ensuring that you are playing it how it would ideally sound. Then, work on bringing it up to speed and finally “contextualize” it. This means to play the surrounding measures/notes, so that you can then work on including the portion you have “chunked” in the whole piece.

5. Practice is 70% mental.

The mental aspect of practicing should not be overlooked. When practicing, it is helpful to go over pieces in your head before playing. This way, your brain understands what your fingers, mouth, or arms are doing. Connecting the mental aspect of practice makes sure that your body isn’t going faster than your brain, which is one of the main reasons why musicians slip up while playing an instrument.

6. Record yourself playing.

Recording yourself playing is the change that will leave you with the most shocking impacts. If you are playing a piece, record yourself and listen. Hearing yourself through an objective lens after playing is much different than hearing yourself while playing. If you are playing a fast section, it can even help to slow down the video in a video editor, such as iMovie, and see if your notes are even or find any mistakes you may have made. Even if you can’t catch them, those mistakes will be glaring when the video is slowed down, and being aware of them and making conscious efforts to correct them is key to becoming a better musician.

7. Set goals.

Goal-oriented practice is important because it motivates you to work towards a specific target. Whether it simply be a recital, learning a piece of music, or being able to master a certain skill or technique, setting that ambition in your sights will give your practice direction and meaning, as you can practice accordingly to reach your goal.

8. Learn from the best.

Watching YouTube videos of musical performances is a fantastic way to see how the greatest musicians play their instruments. This will ensure that you understand what you should be aiming towards in your instrument. It may be certain ways that they approach techniques or ways they control their tone. Online resources such as interviews or masterclasses by respected musicians are exceptional resources that will help you incorporate new concepts and details into your own practice.

9. Practice with a metronome.

If you only decide to follow only one thing from this list, it would be to always use a metronome when practicing. Being able to keep in time is something that every musician should be able to do very well. Even if a piece is in rubato, where you are instructed to deviate from playing strictly in time, knowing how to play in time will help you know precisely when speed up and slow down from being perfectly in time, rather than simply being incapable of sticking to a steady tempo. Furthermore, this is doubly helpful if you plan to play in an ensemble, orchestra, or band.

If you follow these tips, you can ensure that you will be spending your practice time as efficiently as possible, and maximizing your productivity. A common misconception is that practicing more is always good. However, this is far from the truth. Following these guidelines, you can practice an amount that is not restrictive on your social life and school work, and still achieve great results.

Overall, practicing helps you solidify your technique and learn pieces, and following these tips will help you to be the most efficient you can be with your time. Remember to spread out your practicing time, be organized, get feedback (whether through an instructor or listening to yourself), and always play with a metronome!


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