The Practice Notebook

flutist Zara Lawler shares tips on learning music

7 Ways to Make your Practicing more Efficient and Effective Starting TODAY



1.  Do a thorough physical warm-up. Physical warm-ups not only prevent injury, they make your practice more efficient. If you start practicing without doing a warm-up first, your body is going to be trying to do two things at once:  warming itself up to the task of playing and learning the new skill you are practicing.  Eventually, you will probably accomplish both those tasks, but you’d be able to do it faster and easier if you did them one at a time.  You can find my suggestions on physical warm-ups by clicking on “Physical Warm-ups” on the Categories tab at the right.

2.  Incorporate mental practice into your routine. Study after study has shown that some form of mental practice, separate from physical practice, enhances any skill you are trying to develop, whether it’s playing a sport or playing an instrument.  Why not experiment with one of the following techniques, even for just a few minutes a day?

  • Visualization: Imagine yourself playing beautifully in your upcoming concert or audition.
  • Score study: Notice how the piano part fits with yours.  Look for melodic and harmonic patterns.  Apply some of that stuff you learned in theory class to your own music!
  • Memorization: Try beginning the memorization process away from your instrument. Study the music phrase by phrase as you would if you were practicing with the instrument.
  • Practice the thought process you use while playing the piece. Page through the score while reminding yourself of the various things you need to think and do while playing the piece (make sure not to play this phrase too loudly, match the pitch of the horn on this note, use this long rest to relax the shoulders, etc).

3.    Practice the hard parts first. (after having done a good warm-up of course!) Jump into the deep end! When you practice the most challenging part of a piece of music, you are not only getting better at the piece, you’re getting better at your instrument.  So mastering the hard parts of a piece first will make the easy parts even easier, and therefore take even less time to practice.

4.    Be ruthless when isolating the problem spots. Sometimes the main obstacle to playing a difficult passage can be narrowed down to a single interval.  Tedious though it may seem to practice just two notes, it is way MORE efficient (and way LESS tedious) than slogging through an entire phrase over and over again.

5.    Close the door. Having a private space in which to practice can have a profound impact on your ability to concentrate. While you’re at it, you could also try turning off the phone and putting the computer to sleep.  If you don’t have a room in which to practice (for example, if you practice in your family’s living room), you can still find a way to metaphorically close the door—face your music stand away from the hall where people might be walking by or away from your sister sitting on the couch…


6.    Plan and take breaks. Give yourself a time limit and stick to it.  If you’ll be practicing for an hour, take a 5-minute break after half an hour.  You’ll come back refreshed, and your second half-hour of work will be more productive than it would have been if you had just plowed through.  Pilots are required to take breaks, and musicians should be too! For more on breaks, see this post.

7.    Keep a log. Think today about what you need to practice tomorrow and write it down.  It’ll save you the time of idly playing through your piece at your next session, trying to remember which spot you thought needed attention. I saved this one for last, since technically, it won’t improve your practicing until tomorrow.  For more on the value of keeping a practice notebook, check out my first and second posts.  And be sure to read the comments, as readers have posted some interesting ideas on the topic.


Photo credits: Stretch is by That Guy Who’s Going Places;  Clock is by inocuo;  Notebook is by *spudballoo*

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“7 Ways to Make your Practicing more Efficient and Effective Starting TODAY”

  1. On June 11th, 2009 at 2:07 am Mike Saville Says:

    Nice article. Good to see another blogger writing about practice!

  2. On September 17th, 2009 at 12:10 pm The Practice Notebook » Blog Archive » Back to School: 8 Tips for getting back into Shape Says:

    [...] practice the hardest part first.  Ordinarily, that’s a great way to practice a piece, but not for your first few sessions back.  It can be disheartening, and can lead to the kind of [...]

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