Tips for Effective Practice

Tips for Efficient, Effective, Joyful Practice

by Bob Duke and Amy Simmons

How to choose what to work on

Most of the music you work on during every practice session should be music that is mostly playable by you. If the majority of your practice time is spent working on music that you can barely get through, you’re not only wasting your time, you’re probably making yourself worse.

How to think about what you’re trying to play

Whatever it is you’re working on during your practice, you should be able to generate a version of the music with your voice in a way that embodies the expressive elements of the piece or etude. If you don’t have a clear version in your head of what you’re trying to create, it will be difficult to make much progress.

How much to try and change at one time

Rather than trying to make a lot of things better in a single practice, work to make one small thing great. Not just better, but great. By small things we mean things like: refining how a single note starts, making a slur sound even and smooth, ending a note quietly, making consecutive notes sound even. If you never experience moments when small things sound and feel truly terrific, you will have difficulty refining how you play.

How to make difficult challenges more manageable (doable)

The primary reason to employ what people refer to as “practice strategies” is to make difficult challenges more manageable (doable). If you can’t play what you’re working on in tempo and in character, then you have to make some modifications to simplify what you’re doing. With this in mind, when you change something about the music to make it more doable, change as little as possible, trying to keep everything as much like the final performance version as you can.

How to make changes stick

If you want to make changes in your playing that your brain remembers, you should not try to do things exactly the same way every time you play. This may sound a little odd, but making small changes in what you do, like playing your scales just a little slower or faster today or starting the etude in a place where you don’t usually start, forces your brain to pay a little more attention and work a little harder. That extra attention and effort will help your brain remember what you accomplished.

How to organize practice time over the week

If you want to remember what you accomplish from one practice session to the next, you should divide your practice time into small segments. If you usually practice for an hour on a given day, divide that time into multiple, shorter sessions (e.g., three 20-minute or two 30-minute sessions). You should do this even if you think you could practice longer than 30 minutes. One key to effective practice is stopping each session before you really want to stop.

How to organize what you do during a practice session

Routines are important, certainly, but it’s also important to vary how you spend time in each practice session. If you’re going to practice for 45 minutes and work on three goals, for example, rather than work on each goal for 15 minutes, work on the first goal for 5 minutes or so, then go to the next goal for another 5 or so, and then to the next. This way of doing things has been shown to be very effective in refining skills, even though you may not play as accurately as you would if you spent longer periods of time on each goal.

How to maintain beautiful fundamentals

Each time you start to play (i.e., each time you get ready to take a breath or set your bow, or place your hands or your mallets on your instrument), you should think about how you feel. Are you relaxed and comfortable? Whether sitting or standing, you should feel pretty much the same when you're holding your instrument as you do when you’re sitting or standing without your instrument. Once you begin to play, devote time throughout your practice to notice the fundamental features of what you’re doing—how you breath, how you move.

How to evaluate what you accomplish in each practice session

You should spend a few minutes at the end of each practice session thinking about what you accomplished. It’s important that you describe tangible goals that you accomplished, like “I can now play that interval perfectly in tune” or "the notes in that run are perfectly even," and not things like “I got the rhythm a little better,” which really don’t mean much of anything. Make time to review and take pleasure in the little things that you made great.

Duke, R. A., Allen, S. E., Cash, C. D., & Simmons, A. L. (2015). Practice like a pro. Southwestern Musician, January, 33-37. [pdf]

Slides from Bob Duke's TMEA 2022 Presentation: Music practice facts and fantasies, and the power of one great thing [pdf]