It doesn’t matter how old you are or how long you have been playing music—it can always be a challenge to sit down and practice your instrument on a regular basis.
But have no fear… our SMT teachers are here!
As a means of helping our beloved music students stay motivated, we asked our teachers to share their top tips for how to practice on a regular basis and make the most of your music time.
Over the course of the last month, we have published two collections of practice tips (here are the links to our first and second collection)—so now without any further ado, here is our third and final anthology of teacher tips!
To Start Us Off, Here is Some Tried and True Advice From Matthew Dayton (guitar, ukulele, piano, theory, songwriting, composition, and recorder)
Recently, a common theme with many of my students (applicable for all instruments) has been discovering the value of adhering to a set routine for each practice session. This simply means following a kind of step-by-step checklist every time you sit down to practice. Depending on how long you have for the overall practice session, you can adjust the amount of time you spend on each element—but here is what a good sample routine could look like:
1. Slowly play a scale so you can focus on making the exact tone you want—then speed it up with a metronome. (5-10 minutes)
2. Play a short repeatable finger pattern to improve a specific technique, such as finger independence or slurs. (5-10 minutes)
3. Jump straight to the most troublesome measure or phrase of a song you’ve been working on and play through the hard spots in glacial time—then rinse and repeat. (10-15 minutes)
4. Play through the song from the beginning at a speed 20% slower than you want to—and use the metronome to keep you honest! (5 minutes)
5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 for another song, or reward yourself by playing something you’ve already learned well and play just for fun. (10-20 minutes)
However, my number one tip for all instruments is this: before you play anything, tell yourself specifically what your goal is for what you’re about to practice. This works even for warm-up exercises and scales. If you can’t think of a goal, spend some time coming up with one (perhaps imagine what goal your teacher would advise you to set), so you actually have something to strive for during practice sessions that might otherwise get tedious.
Now Here Are 5 More Tips From Justin Heath (banjo, guitar, ukulele, and mandolin)
1) Pick up your instrument as often as possible, even if you’re just squeezing 10 minutes of practice into your day. Assuming you have fun playing music, then those little sessions will ensure that you won’t miss out on it when other things come up in your life.
2) Keep some kind of list or notebook of what you are practicing. This is a great way to organize the things you intend to focus on and keep track of your progress and all the stuff you already know how to play.
3) Work on things that you think you are bad at. Whether it is reading, improvising, playing by ear, rhythms, melodies, etc.—if you take time to specifically target your weaknesses, they will become strengths.
4) Distinguish between practicing and playing and make time for both.
5) I don’t want to say use a metronome but… use a metronome. It is worth it.
Now, Let’s Give It Up for This Short and Sweet Practice Routine From Nick Wilby (bass, guitar, and ukulele)
One important thing that I try to stress to all of my students—no matter their instrument or skill level—is this: always listen to the music you’re learning.
Active listening is still practicing and it is an important part of learning any piece (it’s also a fun and more passive way to practice—especially after practice fatigue sets in!) It helps get the music in your head and give you a standard to aspire to.
Once you’re feeling more comfortable with the piece, try to play along with recordings of the song as much as possible.
I encourage all of my students to play along with YouTube videos that allow them to change the playback speed to whatever tempo they’re comfortable with. This is a great tool that allows you to slow down a recording without affecting the pitch. It gives you the same benefits as working with a metronome, but it sounds fuller and is often more pleasant to hear!
Finally, Here Are 3 More Practice Tips From McKinley Corbley (piano, accordion, harp, recording, production, songwriting, composition, and ukulele)
1) Wed Your Practice Time to Something Fun That You Enjoy. Practicing scales from a book and doing teacher-recommended exercises might only get you so far before you start to get bored—that’s why I’m always thinking about how I can use the practice to do something fun.
If you’re practicing your scales, try playing a backing track on Youtube so you can use your scales to play along with a cool song (this will also help you get better at soloing!) If you’re trying to get better at sight-reading sheet music, find a song that you enjoy and see if you can find the sheet music for it online—then you might feel a lot more motivated to pick up your instrument for practice.
2) Find Small Ways You Can Practice While You Are Going About Your Day. If you’re having trouble finding the time to do your vocal warmups at home, practice doing them in the car while you are on your way to work. If you’re having trouble remembering your major/minor scale notes, try writing them down on the palm of your hand and see if you can guess them correctly throughout the day.
These small exercises may only take a few minutes/seconds to do, but that practice builds up very quickly! They’re also good for students who might be trying to challenge themselves outside of their daily lesson/practice time.
3) Write Down a List of Different Ways You Can Play a Tough Musical Piece—Then Have Fun With All of Them! Maybe I’m frustrated over my inability to play through a bar of sheet music; or maybe I’m annoyed by how poorly I’m playing my scales on any given instrument… I can still practice these things while also having a good time! I just have to make myself loosen up.
For this reason, I have a list of dynamics/prompts written down on my computer (e.g. legato, staccato, fast as my ceiling fan, slow as molasses, in the style of an iconic musician/music group, etc.)
If I feel myself getting worked up over practice, I’ll make myself go through this list of musical prompts and apply them to whatever I’m playing. Sometimes, it’ll make the piece a lot easier to play; other times, it’ll just sound plain goofy—regardless, these exercises will help me to relax and have fun while still practicing the music and becoming familiar with the piece.
Overall, I believe that the best student is a motivated student—and the best way to stay motivated is to make sure that music is something that you find enjoyable or inspirational. So while music theory is essential to understanding the science behind your instrument, make sure that you are also keeping an eye on your personal motivations!