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How To Practice Music (Or Any Other Hard Skill)

Practicing music is hard.  There are so many fundamental skills to master and materials to learn that it can be overwhelming to know where and how to start.


I know great musicians who don’t practice much, but when they do practice it is highly focused and effective, and I know mediocre musicians who put in two or more hours a day of unfocused, unproductive practice (and they sound like it!)


When learning any new skill, there are some basic steps that should be taken to help organize and plan for success.


The first thing is to set aside a specific time to schedule for daily practice and study.  15-30 minutes per day is sufficient to get started building skills and setting habits, and 30-60 minutes per day is a good goal for ongoing success.


The next step is to think about your goals.  A concrete goal is perhaps the most crucial factor for future success.  In music, your goal can be something like, “I want to be able to play this piece that I love,” or, “I want to win this audition,” or, “I’d like to join this community band or orchestra.”


Having a well-defined goal will make sure your actions are aligned with your intended outcome, help you avoid wasting time, and keep your daily motivation/discipline strong.


Now that the groundwork is laid, consider how you will structure your practice time.  I like to divide my practice time into two distinct categories: technical and musical.


Technical practice addresses the fundamental building blocks of music (i.e. scales and patterns) and the particular idiosyncratic sound production challenges of your instrument.  This means long tones on wind instruments like saxophone or flute, lip slurs on brass instruments like trombone or trumpet, fingering independence exercises on instruments like piano or guitar, overtones on saxophone, etc.


Things like scales, scale patterns, arpeggios, and technical etudes are also included in technical practice.  The goal of technical practice is to generate muscle memory to automate engagement with your musical instrument.  When you’re trying to create beautiful music, the last thing you need to be thinking is, “What is the fingering for a Bb?”


Musical practice is where you apply your technique to real-world pieces.  The challenges encountered in musical practice should inform the content of your technical practice routine, and vice-versa.


Particular emphasis should be placed on making everything you play sound like music.  As the great Bud Herseth, long-time principal trumpeter with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, said, “Never practice, but always perform.”  (This should not be taken as a warning against practicing, but rather as guidance on the proper mentality when practicing.)


I recommend starting out with something like a 2-to-1 ratio of musical-to-technical practice.  That means if you have a 30-minute practice session, 20 minutes should be on musical practice and 10 minutes should be technical.  At certain points in your musical journey, that ratio may even out or even switch to focus more on technique, but the 2-to-1 ratio should give you a good start.


Overall, this is a good framework to focus and inform your musical development.  Of course, a qualified in-person music teacher is a hugely useful tool to dial in the specific exercises, techniques, and songs that are appropriate for your current stage of learning.


Learning music is a tremendously beneficial and rewarding lifelong habit.  It is good for your mind, body, and soul, and can be done at almost any age and health condition.  So I encourage you to pick up an instrument, set aside some daily time for practice, and enrich your life!



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