How to Create a Practice Routine that Sticks

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Leah Kruszewski
How to Create a Practice Routine that Sticks

Whether you’re an adult music student or a parent guiding your young musician, making practice part of your daily routine is essential.  It doesn't have to be complicated!  The most important things are that you set reasonable expectations and use your time in ways that produce results.  Here are some tips for adults and children alike.

1. Set realistic practice goals.

To stay motivated, it’s important to set achievable goals for your practice time and repertoire.  If you work full time and are raising a family, odds are that trying to practice 2 hours daily will lead to missed sessions, frustration, and guilt.  That’s not a healthy emotional environment for learning an instrument.

You can progress on your instrument and learn pieces at an easy and intermediate level with 20-30 minutes of daily practice.  Similarly, choose repertoire that is appropriate for your level and schedule.  There are plenty of intermediate classical guitar songs, for example, that can be learned quickly with 20-30 minutes of daily practice.  But setting a goal of learning ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’ on 20-30 minutes a day would not be achievable.   That will have to wait for a period in your life when you can dedicate more time to the guitar. 

2. Link practice to a part of your daily routine that already exists.

This is simple and self-explanatory, and goes a long way.  Play right after breakfast, before you head out the door.  Have your child practice right after dinner or before brushing their teeth at night.  Once you’ve fallen into a rhythm for a few weeks, it will be hard to fall out again.

3. Set up a simple, distraction-free practice space.

Create a clean, organized space that is just for practicing your instrument.  Find a part of your house that is quiet and away from distractions and activity.  Set up your chair, music stand, music, and instrument in a comfortable arrangement.  Keep your phone on ‘Do Not Disturb’ or, even better, out of the practice space all together.

4. Structure your practice appropriately.

A balanced practice routine includes the following components.  You don’t necessarily have to do them all in one practice block.  But your weekly practice should include all parts.

(1) Warm-up and Technique.

These are really two separate parts but it can be convenient to combine them. Warm-ups get the blood flowing to your hands (mouth, vocal cords, etc.).  They should be active but not too strenuous or fast.  Strumming a favorite song, running scales or arpeggios, and attentively playing melodies are good warm-ups.

Technique should focus on aspects of playing your instrument that need improvement.  Your teacher can show you specific exercises designed for improving position changes, refining tone, increasing velocity, you name it.  It’s important to be very focused on exactly what you want to improve when playing the exercises.  Repetition is not .  Only careful, attentive practice with constant adjustments to the information you receive from your hands and ears.

(2) Learning New Repertoire.

All stages of learning new music, from drafting fingerings to polishing your interpretations and getting it ready for performance.

(3) Maintaining and Perfecting Old Repertoire.

Keep your favorite pieces under your fingers.  Revisit the score to refresh your visual memory, listen to recordings by the masters, and experiment with fresh interpretations.

(4) Music Theory, Listening, Complementary Studies.

Learning music is not just about playing your instrument.  To be a well-rounded musician, you need to understand musical language.  For a child this can mean going through flashcards to reinforce note names.  For experienced students this could be researching the composers and pieces they play or honing sight-reading skills. For conservatory music students, this could mean advanced harmonic analysis.

Another important habit to cultivate is listening.  You should listen to music at least as much as you play, better if you listen even more.  Listen to all genres and keep a journal of your favorite composers, interpreters, and anything you hear that you’d like to bring into your own musicianship.  Insatiable curiosity for all things music is something that you must cultivate within yourself.  Your teacher is there to answer questions, but you need to find your own path, develop your own tastes, and listen constantly.

(5) Fun.

Set aside some time do do whatever you’re in the mood for.  Write a short melody, play along with your favorite song, improvise over a backing track, or sight-read easy familiar tunes.  When you’re playing music for yourself, feel free to sit however, wherever you want.  Posture and playing position are important, but it’s important that we know our instruments on a friendly, casual terms as well.

5. Focus on the hard parts

When you’re practicing technique, learning and polishing repertoire, or studying music theory, it often happens that most of the piece comes easily, and about 10% of the piece/exercise/concept is really tough to master.  If you avoid working on that 10%, you’ll get stuck at the ‘almost-finished’ point permanently.  A better approach is to attach that 10% head-on.  For example, if there are two short phrases in a piece that you always dread, practice them first while your mind is calm and your hands relaxed.  When you’ve made concrete progress in those short segments, then you’ll have earned a rewarding run-through of the whole piece.

6. Take regular lessons.

Regular can be weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly.  The duration of the lessons (from 30 minutes to 1 hour) is also up to you and your scheduling needs.  It’s the regularity that matters.  Make sure your teacher understands your practice goals and time constraints, and ask them to help you set reasonable expectations between classes.

7. Log your goals, practice notes, and achievements in a music journal.

Keeping track of your plans and seeing the results is really helpful in figuring out what works for you.  At the end of a practice session, you should be able to articulate what you can do now that you couldn’t do before.  Here are some examples: (1) ‘Now I can play measures 17-24 cleanly with the metronome at 60.  (2) ‘I can play the last page from memory’ (3) ‘I can execute the dynamics and tempo changes reliably’.

If you repeatedly fall short of your goals, you’ll see it as you review your practice journal.  You might need to break them down into smaller objectives with more small steps along the way.  This is essential both to getting results from our practice and to enjoying ourselves and feeling like productive, capable musicians.  You’re putting in the hours, so make them count as much as they can.

Check out Lessonface’s goal-setting tool in the ‘Profile’ dropdown of your dashboard’s side bar and choose ‘Goals’, as illustrated in the image below.   

You can also download Lessonface’s music practice log for kids:

Alternatively, here's a practice journal for adults:

Teachers and students, do you have more tips to share on developing an effective practice routine?  Please share them below : )

Happy music-making!

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