If you’re serious about your instrument, you practice. You either set aside blocks of time throughout the week or you trust yourself to pick up your guitar or start belting because you love doing it.
There are notable examples of musicians who don’t practice—take Slash from Guns N’ Roses, for example—but they sure did before they reached their peak (and they’d probably grow as players if they took it up again).
There’s just no getting around practice as an integral part of your continuing skill as an instrumentalist. Finger memory and fast chord changes, knowing your limits and expanding them, these are all things that come from dedicated, regular practice.
But is it effective to just pick up your instrument and start jamming away until your time is up? How about singing along to your favorite CD? I think not: these are recipes for a lot of fun, but little progress. A good practice session involves some planning, the willingness to stick to the plan, and the determination to master everything you’ve included in that plan without going for so long that you end up uninterested and tired, or simply having your fretting hand ground away into stumps.
1. Create an Agenda for Your Session
You need to start by evaluating your current skills, and the skills you’d most like to develop. It’s no use just picking up the guitar and trying out random things; you need to set goals in order to focus on certain skills and improve them.
Perhaps you want to increase your chord change speed, or work up to a higher note that you know is in your range, but you just can’t seem to hit it every time.
Make a list on paper, or using your word processor if you prefer to type.
2. Set Times for the Session
It’s important to set times for both your session as a whole, and for the items on your list. If you go for too long, you risk injury, boredom and consequent lack of motivation next time around. If you don’t go for long enough, you don’t make progress.
Avoid scheduling a session that you know is not going to be realistically feasible for you. Consider how long you can go for physically and how long it would take you to make progress on a certain skill, and make a decision based on the two. Remember, your progress will be swifter if you resolve to practice fifteen minutes each day, as opposed to three hours on the weekend.
Your focus times for individual skills will largely depend on how important they are to you over the other skills you’ve listed and how much time you need to spend in order to maintain or develop those skills to the standard you’re after. Make a calculated decision.
Your calculated decision is important and you should try to stick to it. Don’t give up because you get bored. Do pull the plug when you find you can’t focus or you’re feeling strain in the body parts used to play—you’ve over estimated the length of time you can effectively learn and play for in one sitting.
3. Practice in an Environment You’re Comfortable With
I once lived with my in-laws for a month or so between houses. I didn’t practice the whole time, because it was just plain uncomfortable to do so. You need to feel at ease and confident so you can fully explore your instrument without feeling caged in by those around you.
The same thing can happen in close quarters, such as apartments or duplexes. It may be best for you to find a rehearsal room nearby that’s affordable, if you can lug your gear there.
4. Start with a warm-up and scales
Here’s where you can be effective and efficient at the same time: make your scales your warm-up. Start slow and gradually speed up. Gradually means exactly that: gradually. Don’t rush it.
You don’t usually need to split your warm-ups and scales into two sessions. This takes more time and scales are perfectly suited for getting things going, especially on instruments like guitar and piano.
If you’re a vocalist, turn your lip rolls and other strange warm-up exercises into scales and slowly progress into more human sounds. I had a vocal teacher who did fairly random lip rolls, just going up and down without much rhyme or reason, and another who had students do lip rolls on a few different scales. How do you think helped me more?
5. Start with Comfort Zones
Once you’ve warmed up and tackled some scales in doing so, don’t dive straight into your problem areas. Start with a song you know how to play well (but not one you’re sick of playing) or something else you genuinely enjoy doing with your instrument, that you’re good at. This sets the tone for the rest of the session, reinforces and maintains those skills, and generally gets you confident enough to tackle the hard stuff.
If you tackle the hard stuff right away, it’s easy to get discourages and frustrated. Don’t do it.
6. Use the Bell Curve of Difficulty
Once you’ve practiced for a while on the items you’re comfortable with, move into the most challenging topics on your list and progress through them in order of decreasing difficult. This way you’re starting with the easy stuff, moving into the hard stuff while your attention is fresh and your confidence is high, and then moving back into the easier stuff as you get more tired and frustrated.
This not only relieves the level of tension you’d usually experience while you’re practicing, it makes sure you don’t end the session frustrated, but confident. This is important. If you finish off frustrated, it’ll be harder to come back to your next session.
7. Slow Down—Then Speed Up
Don’t start a new exercise, song or scale at full-speed. Don’t try to learn shredding at full speed, either. It might seem that starting at full-speed will help you get there faster with some persistence, but that’s simply not true. Slow down as much as you need to in order to play each note properly and precisely, and speed up gradually—if you’ve mastered it at ¼ speed, go to ½ speed and only then should you go to full speed.
This is all about building muscle memory; once your fingers (or throat, or feet if you happen to play with them) can do something without consulting your brain at a slow speed, it’s not such a huge jump for them to tackle full speed. But from zero to full speed straight away? Not going to work—it’ll actually slow you down, and frustrate you to boot, which only slows you down even further.
8. Focus on Your Mistakes
Focus on your mistakes the most. Give them special attention. For instance, if you’re playing a new song pretty well except for one riff, don’t play the whole song over and over again—focus on that one riff until you’ve got it, then go back to practicing the whole song.
If you play the whole song over and over ten times, you’ll only tackle the bits you’re uncomfortable with ten times in a large amount of time. If you focus more, you can tackle the tough passage fifty times in the same amount of time it took to play the song over and over again.
9. Practice at a Decent Volume
I didn’t always follow this advice. Well, more accurately, I followed it, but I didn’t recommend it to others—I grew up with a drummer. I was on the receiving end of many headaches.
But if you practice, you’ve got to do it at a volume where you can hear everything clearly. When things are too quiet, you miss half the mistakes you’re making and heck, you’re not even sure which mistakes you’re not making.
If you can’t hear the full tone of each note, you’re practicing too quietly. If you can hear the overtones and undertones of each note clearly, you’re good to go.
10. Use a Metronome!
I lament the fact that many “hip” and “modern” music instructors don’t force their students to use a metronome. When I’m practicing an instrument such as guitar or keys, I usually do it through Logic (I don’t have an amp—well, I do, but I’m not willing to use it anymore!) and I have the built-in metronome going the whole time. It does wonders for your sense of rhythm and timing.
Too many musicians these days have no sense of timing at all. They have a sense of rhythm, perhaps, but their ability to hit the right note at the right time? Not so great. Practicing with a metronome is a gem from the dark ages and it will separate you from the crowd as a musician when you can actually hit the first beat in a bar while we’re all still on the first beat.
There are many different things that you should work on with your specific instruments: trombonists and trumpet players need to work on their breath control, guitarists need to work on their picking, and so on. If you have a workflow for your practice sessions on a specific instrument, share it in the comments!