Your skill at your instrument is the sum of your quality practice time. Progress comes from the hours of time with your tutor and your time alone with your instrument. If you want to take it to the next level you will need to 1) make the time to practice and 2) practice effectively within the given time frame. Spending hours playing the same familiar tune will not make you grow as a musician. Maintaining repertoire is important but learning new things and expanding your boundaries makes music exciting and fresh.
Your Practice Time Goals:
- Maintain your current repertoire
- Improve on tunes you are learning
- Learning new skills
If you seem to only have time to play your current repertoire, you will need to do some creative time management in order to make time to go further in your practicing. More on this coming up.
Maintaining Your Current Repertoire And Skill Level
When you take a break from your instrument and come back, it is frustrating to see that what used to be easy and fluid can be now difficult or even forgotten. You start playing a tune and realize you don’t remember it all. Maintain your repertoire is important to keep those tunes memorized and available to play at all times. You need to determine your base level standard of playing ability and determine the time required each day and each week to maintain it. If you have a long list of tunes a rotation will need to be utilized to fit it all in such as practicing an easy, well known tune every 3rd day while practicing a more difficult tune every day. One idea is make a weekly practice log with a list of your tunes and log how many times you practice the tune. Make notes on whether it needs more work or if it can be done fewer times each week. Make adjustments to bring up the weaker tunes while keeping your stronger tunes at the same level. There are many factors of good playing: intonation, proper rhythm, proper note volume, etc. There are many things to put together into a beautiful piece. You can spend countless hours perfecting the same piece but does the audience really notice? At some point it is good enough. Extra time spent could be more productive working on something new and fresh. Time is limited. If you are not a professional musician and have a full-time job, then time is really limited.
Improve On Tunes You Are Learning
We covered tunes you already know. You now have time allotted to maintain your ability to play these at an acceptable level. Now it is time to take it farther. You will be weak at some tunes and that is a good place to start. Brand new tunes you will always be weak at in the beginning. For example, you may be playing the tune at a slow tempo with no problem but if you speed it up to faster tempo then it all falls apart. The difficult passages are now glaring weaknesses needing work.
Working with a metronome comes into play here to get the tune right with a proper rhythm. You don’t want to play the easy parts at normal tempo and then slow down for the difficult parts. The rhythm section will not like you. Start slowly and gradually increase speed. Slow down apps or software will help you practice a tune with a recording. Starting slow and gradually pushing yourself faster towards the normal tempo. When those difficult passages make you fall apart again, slow down the tempo and build it back up. It takes time, but you can get there.
Learning New Skills And Take It To The Next Level
It is time to take it further. Remember you need to allot extra time beyond standard repertoire and new tunes you are working on. This is a gradual expansion into a new realm of playing. Some examples are: learning an exotic scale, a new syncopated rhythm, or playing at a faster speed than ever before. What if you are blues guitarist and you want to learn to try speed metal shredding? Working with the metronome or drum machine to speed it up will be one of your tools. You may need to change hand position to facilitate faster finger movements. You will notice your weakness when you start playing faster. When you are playing something difficult you need to be aware of tension. Always try to play in a relaxed manner with fluidity.
Other examples of expanding would be playing a tune you know in a different key or play it with a different rhythm. If you are a pianist, you could change up the left hand accompaniment pattern to a familiar tune. Improvisation is a skill that comes in handy. The ability to have your musical knowledge creatively streaming new melodies from your brain to your fingers is the mark of a great player. An improvisation session with a backing track or drum machine is a great way to let it flow and learn to feel the music. You learn to be creative on the fly.
The goal of these sessions is to expand your skills. It is not easy to find out that you are actually not good at something. You may end the session feeling absolutely frustrated. Also, some days you just won’t be 100%. Just accept that you were not at your best this time but you will strive to play better next time. It is a good idea to return to a tune you know well and enjoy so you end your practice sessions on a positive note. You should have the expectation that you will return to your skill expansion drills knowing they will difficult but with ongoing practice you will realize it will be productive and fun.
Managing Your Time
Most musicians have full-time jobs or school with additional commitments such as raising children. Finding time to practice with full mental focus and physical energy is a huge challenge. It can be done. You will need to map out time during the day. In the morning before work, you can spend 15 minutes practicing. At lunch hour at work, you could take drive someplace such as a park and practice your instrument for 30 minutes. Where there is a will there is a way. Each instrument is different due to portability, loudness, etc. You can’t play bagpipes in an apartment at 2:00 am but you could play screaming heavy metal guitar at that time with headphones plugged into your amp.
The key is to set a goal and then map out time in your day to work on it. You need free time. You need uninterrupted time such as away from your kids. You need time when you can make noise and not annoy anyone. Woodshedding time with no one around is good when trying something new. Some musicians may feel they don’t want others knowing they really suck at something. You may have difficult passages to work on where you go over it again and again repetitively. It may get to that point where everyone in the house is ready to shoot you. Then it is time for you to get away privately and work on it.
How much time per day? Depends. If it is a full work day, then 15 minutes to an hour may be all you can do. Days off give you opportunities to get more practice time in but it would be better to schedule shorter blocks of practice time than a long marathon session.
A one hour session may look like this:
10 minutes – Warmup / Scales / Arpeggios
30 minutes – Work on repertoire and newer tunes
15 minutes – Skill expansion drills
5 minutes – Finish off with a familiar tune
A 15 minute session may look like this:
5 minutes – Warm-up
10 minutes – Work on repertoire
A weekend may have the following:
9:00 am – 1 hour normal practice session
2:00 pm – 1 hour free improvisation
4:30 pm – 30 minute session of working on fingering techniques and roadblocks
Scheduling your time in blocks is helpful. Playing music exhausts your mind and body so you need to refresh yourself and lose any tension. Chronic tension leads to severe problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome, neck pain, shoulder pain and other issues. You need to walk away, take a break, and then get back to it refreshed.
Keeping a journal is helpful to write down successes, challenges and goals for the next session. Use it like you would track your exercise progress in a gym.
The best way to improve as a musician is to transcribe. Taking a favorite tune and spending the time to figure out the notes, chords, and overall structure of the tune will make you a better musician. A slow-down software app comes in handy to figure tunes out in small, digestible pieces.
Transcribing utilizes many skills we would ever need to practice:
- Aural – Learn by ear. Match the tones.
- Musicality – Learn the notes, tone, inflection, and nuances.
- Technique – Apply proper fingering to play the passage easier.
- Music Analysis – The scales, arpeggios, chords, rhythm. The building blocks of all music are directly applied in the piece of music you are learning.
- Composition, improvisation –Learning somebody else’s composed melody or improvised solo gives you ideas for your own creations.
- Notation – Write it down so you can refer back to it. It also helps improve your reading.
- Expand your repertoire – You have just learned a new piece of music.
Give It Time
Practicing over and over may eventually lead to diminishing returns. You will need to reassess where you were, where you are now and where you want to be. If you have huge gaps, seeking a knowledgeable teacher may be just what you need to address the area of concern. Oftentimes our brain needs time just to catch up and process information. Sometimes you can be amazed at sudden jumps in your skill level. One day you were struggling, then the next you got it and it does not seem so hard after all. Sometimes giving it a good rest is vital to the learning process.
Find A Teacher And Take Lessons
Learning on your own is possible but taking private lessons can really help you get through the sticking points much faster. If you have budget concerns set up biweekly lessons, smaller sessions or monthly lessons. Make use of the time productively. Come to the lesson with your goals and questions. Try to make the most of the practice session. Don’t spend the whole practice session going over Part A of tune that could be easily be practiced on your own. We all could benefit from private lessons from different teachers with different perspectives. You can even use Skype with a teacher far away. Online courses with video software is also very helpful to take your music playing to a new level. Musiciansresource.net provides many learning programs for you to learn new skills and expand your horizons.
Good luck on making a more effective practice routine. What you decide to do today will make tomorrow and the future better for you as a musician.