Practising - tips and advice

How much and how often?

It is too easy say “The more you do, the better you will get”. To a certain extent it is true but only if the practice is effective! (See below.)
Little and often is far better than a lot every now and then. First of all, the best thing is to aim to do some playing every day, even if it is only 5 minutes. For the beginner, this gets them into the habit of daily practice. Then you can build on this – either by doing occasional longer sessions or by doing two or more short stints of practice every now and then, when time allows.
It takes time for muscles to develop and for stamina to improve – and there is no point in persisting with practice if muscles are tired or if concentration is a problem.
As you get more advanced, you will need (and, hopefully, want) to do more practice. Remember that progress often comes in fits and starts – there will be times when you feel that you are not really getting anywhere. Be patient. Often you will find that just a 2 or 3 of days of extended practice and harder work will get you over the hurdle and up to the next level.
A rough guide to practice times: For beginners, 5 – 10 minutes every day, building to about 15 or 20 minutes daily by the time you reach intermediate (grade 3). For intermediate players, try to build it up to about ½ hour each day, maybe with the odd extra short stint. For more advanced players (grade 6 upwards) aim for 1 hour each day, maybe in 2 separate stints, and occasionally a bit more. As you approach grade 8, you will need to be doing up to 2 or more hours a day.
Of course, more advanced players will probably also be playing in orchestras and ensembles, which may reduce the time they have for private practice. That is fine, but try to make sure you do at least one stint of focussed, technical practice each day, on top of your other commitments.
A useful tip:- If possible, don’t pack your instrument away in its case at the end of every practice stint – leave it out, so that you can just pick it up and play if you happen to have a couple of minutes to spare. (One possibility is to leave the instrument near the telly and, every time the adverts came on, pick it up and play!)

Sitting or standing?

Some instruments (piano, organ, harp, cello etc.) are almost always played sitting down. Most of the other instruments can be played either sitting or standing. When you play a solo (with or without accompaniment) for a concert, or a festival or competition, for an audition or an exam, you will normally be expected to play standing up. When you play chamber music or in an orchestra, you will normally play sitting down. So it's important to practice both! When standing, make sure your posture is correct and relaxed and that you stand with your feet apart and one foot slightly in front of the other. When sitting, make sure you maintain the correct posture in the upper part of your body.

Remember – practising is not just about getting it right! There are three elements to good practising:

  1. Developing your technique – i.e. improving the mechanical and physical aspects of your playing.
  2. Getting the music right – i.e. playing the correct notes, in the right order, with the right rhythm, at the right speed, with the right dynamics.
  3. Most important of all – making it sound better, making it mean something – this is what music is really about!

Here’s a little illustrative story to think about: Young Johnny comes home after his third cornet lesson and his Dad asks him: “How did you get on today? Show me what you’ve learnt.” Johnny says: “Great. Listen to this!” – and plays the Little F & G march from Tune-a-day Book 1, pretty well accurately and in time. Well, yes, he’s done OK! On the other hand, young Freddy comes home after his third cornet lesson and his Dad asks the same question. Freddy gets his cornet out and plays just one note – then says to his Dad: “Doesn’t that sound much better than last week?” Freddy is the one who is really making good progress! (And learning to understand music.)

Effective practice!

For practice to be effective, it must be focussed, purposeful and it must produce results!
The biggest fault, with far too many pupils, is to simply play things over and over again and just hope that they will get better. Of course, that might help with stamina and muscle development – but precious little else! Worst of all, it will probably just build bad habits and mistakes into your playing.

Strings, Wind and Brass

Slow down! First of all, make sure the basics are correct – are you holding the instrument properly? Is the posture right? Are all the muscles relaxed? Just play one note and work at improving the quality of the sound and the ease of producing the note cleanly. Think about breathing and tonguing (wind & brass) or bow-hold & left hand position (strings). Try repeating the note several times. Try getting louder and quieter, always concentrating on sound quality. (= bowing practice for strings.)
Then move onto another note and do the same. (Five minutes have gone already!) Then join the notes together – go backwards and forwards between them and learn how to move cleanly and easily from one to the other whilst maintaining the quality of sound. It doesn’t matter if you are trying to learn a tune, or a scale, or an arpeggio – break it down into 2 or 3 note bits and work at each bit separately. When you have done this, you will find you can play the whole thing so much better.
So – learn to analyse, dissect, find out what the problems are, try to find solutions, work at it bit-by-bit and, all the time, make sure you are doing the basic things correctly.
Warming up is important on all instruments. Ask your teacher to give you a basic warm-up routine that you can do each day when you start to practise. This will develop and become more complex as you become more advanced.
Rhythm is the most important element – not the notes! So many people forget this. Don’t worry too much, to begin with, about playing the right notes! First of all, get the rhythm right (striving all the time for good sound quality). Then add in loud and soft, accents and suchlike. When you’ve got all that right, the chances are you will be playing the right notes too and, if not, it will be a simple matter to correct any little errors!

Piano

On the piano and keyboards, you don’t have to make the sound yourself, so you don’t need to be so concerned about sound quality – the instrument does it for you! On the piano, your practice is much more about teaching your fingers to play the right rhythm and the right notes in the correct order. More repetitive work is needed to train the fingers (and the brain)! However, you do still have to pay attention to loud and soft, matching the tone from note to note, balancing the volume of different notes in chords etc. In other words, it is still very important to work slowly, in little bits, in detail – not just to play though pieces.

Percussion

Practising to play percussion is all about learning the techniques of playing a whole range of instruments. (Please don’t limit yourself to drum kit! There is so much more to percussion playing.) The first basic techniques are those for the side-drum – paradiddles, rolls etc. – but then you can move on to all sorts of other interesting things. It is when you progress to “tuned” percussion (Xylophone, Marimba, Vibraphone etc.) that you really start to make music – and then many of the points made above will come into effect. Two very important points to remember: (1) As always, Rhythm is the most important element and (2) It is so important to learn to read music as you go along.

Harp & Guitar

In terms of the points about effective practice above, the Harp and Guitar fall somewhere between the piano and the other string instruments. It is difficult to give more specific advice – except to all Guitarists – please learn to read music as you go along!

Singing

Obviously, this is different from all other instruments because you don’t need to learn to play anything! Or do you? The voice is an instrument and you still need to train it to do what you want. A lot of people never actually practise singing, they just learn the songs or the notes they have got to sing until they can sing them accurately. (Please bear in mind the point made earlier about rhythm! Many singers focus so much on pitch, tone quality and diction that they neglect rhythm – and this can be a big problem!)