FAQ: What's the Best Way to Practice?

Following up on my previous post about how much to practice, I want to follow up with a little note on, well, best practices for practicing! As I mentioned, I'm not the type of person who encourages every music student to play for a particular time. I encourage playing a piece a set number of times. 

Last weekend I attended a guitar workshop in Manhattan led by a group of renowned performers and educators and practicing was a hot topic. The general consensus of the educators was that quality, not quantity, of practice is what determines the student's progress. They also encouraged playing a piece a set number of times, but with an additional caveat: to play the piece PERFECTLY three times, then once more to cement it, and then to put the instrument away.  

As a teacher, I do not focus on perfection. I believe, especially with my early beginners, that focusing on a "perfect" ideal can be extremely discouraging. Instead, I focus on effort and progress of the individual student. Everyone has different strengths and will grow in different ways and it's important to celebrate those successes. That said, proper practicing can make a huge difference. 

Here's why: if the student rushes through a piece at light speed, missing dynamics and playing a few wrong notes, THOSE habits are the ones the brain will become wired to remember. Those mistakes are wearing the pathways for eventual memory recall (and this is precisely why I do not encourage memorization early in learning a piece - because that's how you memorize bad habits!). The more times the student practices the piece CORRECTLY - or at least, to the best of their true and current ability - the better the brain will remember how to play it next time.  

Along with practicing the piece the way you'd like to perform it, I have to talk about speed. As noted above, rushing through a piece during practice often does no good. Neither does rushing during a performance...or any time. I tell all of my students at nearly every lesson to S-L-O-W D-O-W-N. I had a young student yesterday rush through the first line of a piece but when she got to the second line she paused, looked up, and said, "I don't have time to think about where my hands go." I gently reminded her that she had set the pace with the first line and would need to slow that line down to give herself time to think. Always, always take things slow, especially in the first days or weeks of working on a piece. Your brain will speed things up once the basics are in place. It's not a competition to see who can play the piece faster. Playing slowly helps solidify those pathways in the brain, and it also helps ensure the student is playing everything accurately - it's difficult to hide small mistakes when every single note is so visible.  

So, the short takeaways for practice are: 

  • Play the piece as accurately as possible 3-4 times, then once more to solidify 
  • Slow down! Play slower than you feel you're capable of playing 

I'll discuss additional practice techniques (such as scales) in another post - this one is more about HOW to practice, not what to practice. 

I look forward to joining you on your musical journey. Contact me if you'd like to brush up on your skills! Happy playing!