Practicing Tips

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For saxophone players: see
Practice Like the Pros



For more ideas like these, you may want to see the book The Art of Practicing: a Guide to Making Music from the Heart



















Drum Machine Programming













Buy Midi Software online







Buy Ear training Software online












Become a Virtuoso Pianist



This is one in a series of free music theory lessons. Click here to subscribe to these free music lessons. This lesson gives some tips for practicing your musical instrument. Please send me your questions or comments by clicking here. Thanks. NOTE: there are some links in this web page that will take you to other resources you may find useful. You can use the back button to return to this page after exploring a link.

Schedule and Divide your Practice Time

Make a decision to practice so many minutes a day on average. Then decide how much to practice various things. For example:

  • 10 minutes on sight reading new material
  • 10 minutes improvising
  • 10 minutes playing and improving in the "key of the week"
  • 15 minutes on exercises
  • 30 minutes refining your playing of selected pieces.

These times are just examples. You may want to practice more than this or structure your practice time differently!

Learn some techniques for sight reading.

This will be the topic of a future lesson. But in the meantime, you may want to consider buying a book on this topic: Super Sight-Reading Secrets.


Prepare for Practice

Before practicing, try some deep relaxation. Listen to a guided imagery audio tape or Cd as you relax and focus on your musical goals. Do some progressive relaxation: start with the the top of your head. Tighten a muscle group for 5 seconds. For example, raise your eyebrows up as high they will go. Then relax your eyebrows and let your eyes close as you relax. Next, wrinkle up your nose for 5 seconds. Then relax. Feel the relaxation spread across your upper face, and so on. Continue down the rest of your body: clench your teeth, tighten your throat, etc. Note that the conscious tightening of the muscles helps you identify unconscious tighness and helps you move from tightness to relaxation. When you come to your arms, hands and fingers, really focus on getting into a deeply relaxed state. Remember, this feeling of relaxation. At the end of your relaxation session, say some affirmations about your practice session, like:

  • I enjoy my practicing in this relaxed state..
  • I will learn so much today because I am so relaxed.
  • My playing is getting better and better.
  • I love music and practicing music is fun.

Note: if the idea of affirmations or guided imagery is new to you (or if you'd just like to have some more resources in this area), you may find these items at Amazon helpful:.

When you start to practice, remember to recapture the relaxed feeling you had in your meditation session. Repeat the affirmations quitely to yourself as you practice. Enjoy!

Key of the Week

Each week make to explore a certain key. Write down your decision about what key to practice in on a calendar.


Week 1: C
Week 2: F
Week 3: B-flat
Week 4: E-flat
Week 5: A-Flat

When exploring a key:

  • Play a simple scale.
  • Transpose various exercises
  • Play a set chord progression in the key.
  • Improve a melody against the chord progression.
  • Tranpose an entire piece of music or play a simple tune in the key..
  • Compose a piece of music in the key of the week.
  • Sight read various music written in the key of the week.

If you are playing a melody instrument, like a flute, you may want to prepare or get a tape or midi file of some chord progressions that you can play along with. The chord progressions should be in various keys.

After a while, you will develop a feel for the various keys and you will be comfortable playing in just about any key.

Try 2 minute practice sessions

If possible, grab your musical instrument when you are waiting for something else to happen and practice for a couple of minutes. For example, when putting the tea kettle on, you might grab your instrument and practice until the tea kettle starts whistling. Pick out some small musical ideas that would be suitable for these small bursts of musical practice.

Practice with a metronome or drum machine.

Classical musicians often think they should not practice with a rigid device like a drum machine or metronome--that they need to feel and respond to a dynamic, inner beat. However, practicing with a metronome or drum machine does have its advantages. It helps to ensure that you can play smoothly and "in-time" -- that you can keep up with the device. Try setting the tempo to very slow at first and gradually increasing the tempo.

TIP: It helps to practice in different ways. Apply this idea to all aspects of your praticing. For example, when practicing jazz or popular music music that has 4 beats per measure, with a metronome, sometimes think of the metronome as clicking on beats 2 and 4 That's because this music often has drum beats accenting beats 2 and 4.

If you have MIDI software you won't need a drum machine, because the software can emulate a drum machine. But a drum machine can still serve as an extra MIDI instrument and put less strain on your computer system.

To learn more about rhythm and drum machine programming, you may want to get The Rhythm Book. NOTE: just because your are not a drummer, doesn't mean you might not learn a lot from studying the drums along with your main instrument. In fact, I strongly recommend you take up some form of drum playing. Even consider joining a drumming club. Remember, rhythm is one of the three basic elements of music.


Practice with MIDI

If you have a midi instrument and midi software, record a basic drum part and then record your own playing along with the drum part. After recording, check your playing to see how close youto come to being exactly on the beat. Experiment with various quantization factors for the notation. For example, if the shortest note in what you are playing is a 1/16 note, set your MIDI system for 16th note quantization.

Download or purchase some MIDI files and practice playing along with them. Record your playing. Play it back and listen. Look at how your midi software has notated your playing. You can get an outstanding MIDI and audio program called PowerTracks for only $50. If you don't yet have midi software I strongly recommend you consider getting PowerTracks..

Learn about chords. With Powertracks, you can speed your learning of chords, because PowerTracks can automatically display the chord symbol for your MIDI files or recordings.

I used MIDI to create the piece called Flower In My Hand, which you can download for free from .

Ear Training

Make ear training a regular part of your practice session. One way to do this is to try to hear each note in your mind just before your play it. Or try to sing the melody aloud as you play. Stop playing sometimes, but try to sing the next note -- they check by playing the note. This is especially useful if you are playing unfamilar material.

Another approach is to have a friend play various chords and intervals for you. Try to guess what intervals or chords your friend is playing. Take turns.

Use a software program designed to help you improve your musical ear. Don't just use this program now and then, but make it a regular part of your practicing. Just do it every time and you may be surprised at how much your musical ear will improve over time. You might also use a scheduling program to automatically run your ear training software at a certain time each day so you don't forget to practice. For example, in Windows 2000, click...

Start/Programs/Accessories/System Tools/Scheduled Task ... schedule a program to run every day at a certain time.

NOTE: I have an inexpensive, fully guaranteed ear training program available for immediate download. Click here if you'd like to give it a try. .I am also developing other interactive tutorials that work with PowerTracks, a powerful MIDI program.

Rhythmic Practice

Practice various exercises in various rhythms. A good approach might be to make a notebook in which you write down various rhythms. Then when you feel you have mastered a rhymic pattern, check it off. For example, there is a book of exercises (intended to develop dexterity) for piansts called The Virtuoso Pianist. These exercises are intended to develop dexterity. The exercises are written all in 16th notes. But you might play them in different ways. For example, you might a rhythm like this:


The exercises, as is, can be very boring. But they become fun when you think of different ways to play them. It stimulates your creative mind. If you are interested in jazz, you might like to try an exercise book called Jazz Hanon

Another idea is to play these exercises in the key of the week as well as in the key of C as they were originally written. If you play them in a various keys, I suggest you keep your fingering the same. For the purpose of this exercise, use the same fingering no matter what key you are in. Don't try to follow rules about not using your thumb or little finger on black keys. Keep it simple.

A word of caution: don't get so carried away with exercises that you neglect practicing and playing of real pieces. On the flip side, don't just practice pieces, or practice improvising. Keep varying what you work on this. Will will enable you to practice longer without getting tired. And the longer you practice, the better. When practicing exercises, don't always just play them like a machine. Sometimes, put some feeling into them, too. Keep your practicing balanced and varied.

Retrogressive Chaining

In studying instructional technology I learnrd a technique called "retrogressive chaining." It's a very useful technique for helping you memorize long extended musical passages. But my time is about up for this lesson, so I have to take that up in a future lesson, perhaps along with tips for mental musical practice.

Until next time, please drop me a line to let me know what you think of these music theory lessons. You may want to suggest topics or write with a specific question. Thanks.

Phil Seyer, Roseville, California