How to practice smarter, not harder

Written by Aria J. Taboada, instructor at Metro Music Makers

I have experienced it so many times as a music teacher. I get to a student’s house. We unpack our instruments, chat a little about our week, then tackle last week’s assignment. Out come the notes, better than they were last week, but just not quite up to par. My student’s face drops afterwards, and she tells me “I practiced this for 3 hours! I just can’t get it!” Surprisingly, I believe her, because I have, all too often, experienced this phenomenon. So the question is, “Can this be remedied, and how?”

One thing that I have discovered from years of time practicing and spending countless hours in the practice room, is sometimes it’s not the amount of time you put in, but the amount of effort you put in, as well as how you organize your practice schedule. The brain works a certain way when it comes to learning. Here are a few common mistakes that many students make when practicing.

1. Cramming
Have you ever had a big test to study for that just sort of slipped your mind, resulting in stressful late-night studying? The results are typically just not as good as if you had prepared ahead of time. It’s the same with practicing! Starting out on an instrument, I always tell people to practice every day, but no more than 20 minutes at a time. Your brain learns things better in small increments. Cramming in three hours of practice right before your lesson does little good, and usually just ends in frustration.

2. Rushing
Most often, when I ask my students how they practiced a piece, they will respond, “I just ran through it several times.” This method is fine, but only once you have mastered every part of the piece. Take small bites. Divide the piece into sections. Repeat the small section slowly — as many times as it takes to become comfortable with it. Then move on. Do this four or five times, then add together all the sections you have practiced. A lot of playing an instrument is muscle memory, which — as in physical exercise — is better in several small reps.

3. Skipping
When you have mastered a certain section, it’s easy to revel in that, playing it over and over, listening to the beautiful sounds. Too many students skip the small parts that they have trouble on, leading to a piece that’s 99% there, except for those two little notes. If you find you have trouble getting from one note to another note in a certain section smoothly, isolate! I do this by drawing brackets around the small section I am having trouble with. Though it’s tempting to play the beginning of the piece that I have down, I try to go to the bracketed sections first when I sit down to practice. This ensures that the whole piece is played smoothly.

When in doubt about how to practice, always ask your teacher. They are there to make your time the most effective for learning and enjoying your music. Also talk to your teacher about what goals you would like to set. It may be learning a specific piece or technique. But most of all, ENJOY your music-making journey!

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