Guide to Effective Practicing

How not to do it

When asked how they practise, many pupils look at me slightly strangely and say something like "Well, I just keep playing through the piece". Further questioning reveals that they just start playing from the beginning and continue on to the end. When they reach the end they then go back to the beginning (assuming they're not already fed up!) and play through the piece again.

After several repetitions they notice that it hasn't improved - still making the same mistakes in the same places. They say to themselves: "Well, at least I've done my practice - no one can say I don't practise. I just wish I could see some improvement".

A better way

Practising often seems like just another chore - something you know you should do but put off as long as possible. It needn't be this way. The clue is in the last sentence above - "I just wish I could see some improvement". When you practise well, you see improvement - and that is very satisfying - it keeps you coming back for more.

So, how do you practise well?

Think of yourself as a car mechanic trying to get an engine to start that's reluctant to do so. You could just keep turning the engine over hoping it will eventually burst into life. Chances are though that after many failed attempts you'll just flatten the battery and have to give up. When you practise a musical instrument in this way, it's your energy and enthusiasm that go flat - with a similar result.

A well-trained mechanic has a much better way. He identifies all the parts of the engine that could be causing the problem and tests them separately, putting right each fault as he finds it. That way, he pinpoints where the problems lie and fixes them, one by one, until the engine starts.

Well, you need to be a bit of a mechanic with your practising. As you run through the piece the first time, notice where it's not going well. Where do you hesitate, hit the wrong notes, get the rhythm wrong, stumble over the notes using the wrong fingering, etc. Make a note of these sections (preferably marking the music with a pencil). These are the sections you need to work on . It may be a few bars, just one bar or maybe just a few notes - but until you isolate it and fix it the music is not going to flow and it's certainly not going to get any better. Like the car engine, it could be the smallest thing that stops it going - but until you tackle that it isn't going to work.

Slow practice makes fast progress

Sounds a bit like a saying of Confucius! Well, it may have been, I don't know, but it's certainly the saying of all music teachers. Most people practise much too fast. As a general guide you should slow right down until you can play the part you're practising without any pauses or hesitation. If you can't keep a steady pulse you're going too fast. Remember, as long as you are keeping a steady even pulse it's not too slow.

This way you give yourself plenty of time to think about what you're doing. You become less tense, more relaxed and more focused. You will feel much better about your practice and, guess what, you'll soon start improving!

Play the SoundCloud audio 'Slow Practice' for more details and examples (at the top or bottom of this page depending on your device).  Click/tap 'Listen in browser'.


Don't practise your mistakes

Anything you keep repeating will quickly become deeply entrenched. Think of those repetitive DIY jobs that you get really expert at by the time you've finished the job. Think of those annoying advertising jingles that you can't get out of your head (which, of course, is exactly why they keep repeating them!).

When you're learning a new piece you're bound to hit some wrong notes/wrong fingerings/wrong rhythm - but just don't keep repeating them. Notice it's wrong, work out what it should be, try the correct version very slowly and repeat the right version several times so that becomes deeply entrenched.

Use a metronome 

These are truly wonderful! I can always tell which pupils practise with a metronome. Their playing is more even, more fluent and more rhythmic and they play with more confidence. If you ever intend playing with other people, a metronome is a must - you need to be able to keep constant time.

A metronome is also a great way of measuring your progress. Set it really slowly to start with. As you gain in confidence, tweak the speed up a bit - not too much though, just a little. Keep doing this and you'll soon find you're up to speed. Don't rush things though. As soon as your playing gets wobbly, slow the metronome down until you can play evenly again.

Play the SoundCloud audio 'Using a Metronome' for more details and examples (at the top or bottom of this page depending on your device). Click/tap 'Listen in browser'.

Specific issues for the piano/keyboard

Practise with each hand separately

Always start a new piece by practising each hand separately. Usually the right hand first then the left hand, although sometimes, particularly if the left hand part is more complicated, it's good to start with the left hand. Don't try putting the two hands together until each hand can play its part reasonably fluently.

Do notes, rhythm and fingering together

Don't just learn the notes, thinking you'll sort out the rhythm later. Also, don't ignore the fingering thinking you'll wait until you know the notes before sorting out the fingering. Learn notes, rhythm and fingering at the same time. And once you've worked out the fingering, stick to it. If you keep changing the fingering you're bound to make mistakes.

Slow down (even more!) when you start putting hands together

Whatever speed you've been playing with the hands separately, you'll need to go much slower when you put the hands together. People often think this stage should be easy once both hands are going well separately. It's not! It's what makes piano/keyboard playing particularly difficult - you have to be able to co-ordinate two separate things, which are often quite different. Take it very slowly, just one bar at a time. Repeat that one bar until it starts coming together before moving on to the next. When the next bar is coming together try playing just those two bars until you've eliminated any pauses or hesitation.

Specific issues for the guitar

Sore finger tips

If you've just started learning the guitar, your left hand finger tips are going to get quite sore - especially with steel strings (nylon are a bit easier on the fingers). This will quickly get easier as the skin hardens on your finger tips. Don't practise too long at the beginning - just do about 10 minutes at a time. Sore fingers are very off-putting and make some people think they are not cut out for guitar playing. Just accept it will take a few weeks before your fingers feel comfortable. Before long you'll forget it was ever a problem.

Strum new chords very slowly

When you're learning a new chord, particularly if you're a beginner, strum across the strings very slowly, making sure you can hear each individual string . Many people think a twanging, buzzing chord is OK. Remember it needs to sound musical - you're not operating a piece of machinery! Check each note of the chord carefully - ensuring that every string is sounding clearly. If it sounds dead or buzzing check your left hand fingers - are they clearing adjacent strings, are they as close to the fret as possible (you can't always get right behind the fret with every finger but get as close as you can).

Get to know the notes all over the fretboard

Many guitarists neglect this. They often know the notes up to the 5th fret and perhaps up the 6th string but most of the upper reaches are uncharted territory. You'll have a much better understanding of your instrument and music generally if you know what notes you're playing and how chords are structured. A good way of going about learning the notes is to work your way up one string at a time naming the notes as you play them. Just start with the natural notes, i.e. the notes without sharps or flats. So on the E string (1st or 6th string) you'd play: E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E (you'll then be at the 12th fret when everything just repeats). Spend a few days on each string and you'll soon have the lot covered. Once you've got these notes, sharps and flats are easy - just move up a fret for sharps and down a fret for flats from the notes you already know.

Name the notes of scales and arpeggios

As you play a scale or arpeggio, name the notes you are playing (you'll need to have worked on the previous point first of course!). For arpeggios, it's also very useful to name the intervals as you play e.g. for a dominant 7th chord: root, 3rd, 5th, 7th (they won't necessarily be in that order).

Throw away the 20,000 guitar chords book!

Well, let's face it - did you even get the first 1000 cracked or even the first 100?! This is not the way to go about it. Once you've worked on the previous two points you can manage with just a few basic chord shapes. If you know what the notes are and what part of the chord they are you can work the chords out for yourself. E.g. if you know a particular finger is fretting the 9th of a chord, to get a #9 you just need to raise that note one fret (you may need to re-finger the chord of course). If you want to go from major to minor, you just lower the 3rd of the chord one fret (again, you may need to re-finger the chord).