Effective Practice: Learning how to Learn
Updated: Jun 8, 2021
At its most basic, practice is the act of performing or working at something in order to become proficient. Many students struggle with developing effective practice habits because they never learn HOW they best learn. Over the years, I've worked with students with a wide variety of interests, learning styles, and skills, and found 9 basic elements to effective practice:
Research has clearly shown that a person practicing a skill for 10 minutes a day, 5 days a week will facilitate much more learning and growth than a person who practices for an hour one day a week. Start small with your practice time, even if it's just 5 or 10 minutes a day, but do it consistently several days a week. I know, 10 minutes doesn't seem like a lot of time but using the right tools, you can have a more effective practice session in 10 minutes than many students have in 30 minutes or even an hour.
2) Prime your Brain and Body
Good warm-ups not only prepare your body for a good practice session, but they can also help focus and prepare your brain, as well. When I'm warming up by playing low tones on trumpet, it has grown to become almost a meditation over the years. Those low, quiet, long notes slow my thoughts down, bring focus to my breathing and posture, and give me space to set my intention for my practice session.
3) Building Blocks
If you've ever looked at a challenging new piece of music and felt paralyzed by the difficulty/length/range/etc., then you've probably already discovered the importance of being able to break it down into building blocks. What scale(s) is this piece using? Are you proficient in those skills? What about difficult rhythms? Do you need to spend some time clapping with a metronome to build your confidence with the rhythms? Is the piece slightly out of your comfortable playing range? What range-building exercises could you practice?
4) Start Slow
If you can't play it slow and clean, you certainly can't play it fast and clean. In music, speed comes last. Find a slow steady tempo to work at first. Focus your attention on ALL the other details while playing at a slow speed (rhythm, note accuracy, intonation, dynamics, expression, etc).
5) Break It Down
Instead of playing the whole exercise or piece top to bottom over and over again, break it down into individual phrases, measures, or beats. Think of it as a puzzle - each measure is an individual puzzle piece that you need to know well before you can try to plug it into the big picture. Master the individual pieces and then start stringing those pieces together. Focus your energy on the most difficult measures first, and the big picture will get easier and easier as you go.
6) Reverse It
One of my favorite tricks on longer pieces of music is to start by mastering the very last measure or phrase. When I can consistently play the last measure or phrase really cleanly, then I back up to the previous phrase or measure and master it. Then I put those two measures or phrases together and play them together a couple of times. If that goes well, I back up another measure or phrase, so on and so forth, until I reach the beginning of the piece. The great thing about this trick is that the most repetition is built into the end of the song, so it gets easier and easier as you play through the piece. Most people start at the beginning and spend most of their time in the first half of the piece, then find they don't know the last half very well. This can give a false sense of confidence in how well you know the piece. Often this leads to starting the piece too fast, and disaster strikes when that tricky measure near the end pops up. End on a high note by starting your practice at the end!
7) Context is Key
After mastering individual phrases or measures, be sure to go back and play it several times in the context of the bigger piece, and make sure you feel comfortable with what happens right before and after the mastered section.
8) Bring it up to Tempo
When you've mastered a piece or exercise at a slow tempo, it's time to slowly bring it up to tempo. Using a metronome is KEY to doing this effectively. If you have an exercise that's supposed to be 120bpm and you can play it well at 60 bpm, don't jump right up to 120bpm and expect to play it well. Speed up in steps. I tell my students to bump up the metronome 5 or 10 bpm at a time. If you can play it well at 60, bump it to 70. Play it until it's comfortable, then bump it up to 80, and then 90, 100, 110, and finally 120. Stay locked into that metronome to make sure you aren't shifting rhythms and undoing all the hard work you did to learn it correctly.
9) Become the Teacher
One of the best ways to reinforce your learning is to teach someone else the skill you just learned. I LOVE having my beginning students teach a parent, partner, or friend as part of their practice time. This solidifies the information that's been taken in, and you'll be a lot less likely to forget it.
Effective practice doesn't have to take hours and hours or require hundreds of repetitions. Once you've broken it down into the building blocks and mastered the individual puzzle pieces, the growth and learning retention come quickly because you've targeted the exact skills and neural pathways your brain needs to learn. Give these techniques a try in your next few practice sessions and see how much you learn!