What methods and strategies are important for practicing? The most successful musicians use a range of methods and rigorously check what works and doesn’t work. This means you need to be explorative and inventive when working out how to improve something and then be able to check if it is working. Effective practice needs to be deliberate, reflective and explorative. 


Looking at learning (WK)

Learning is quite often associated with education and schooling. However, when we look at learning from a brain perspective, we can call learning an ongoing adaptation of the human being to its environment. This is best visible in children and we then call it growing up. From the moment the brain’s basic shape in the foetus is ready, connectivity is the start of any learning process. Connectivity happens on a local level (certain places in the brain are adapted to certain tasks), between brain parts, between both hemispheres (left and right), between the cortex with lower parts of the brain (limbic system) and even towards the very furthest parts of the body, through the spinal cords. 

Learning in terms of time (WK)

As connectivity between neurons is a proper growing process (it is made of tissue, visible under electron microscopes), it explains the time it takes to learn. Besides time, it takes energy, mostly in the form of oxygen and glucose provided by blood circulation. For this another brain system is supporting the connectivity, the so-called glial cells or neuroglia.  At first, when learning new skills or information, the neural connectivity takes up quite some space in the brain and is not yet quite efficient. Then, by continually learning, the connectivity becomes more dense and strong. Unused connections will be removed again (pruning) by the neuroglia. Connecting versus pruning is a continuous process of the brain. The ability to learn is also called plasticity. The stronger and more dense the network, the less room it takes in the brain. Time wise, creating effective connectivity in a local network can take from a few seconds up to a few weeks. The more different brain parts that are involved in the learning process, the more time it takes to have the whole circuit effectively connected. In that case, the connectivity process can take years.  

‘Food’ and inspiration (WK)

The brain needs the outside world to activate the connectivity. By using the senses (aural, visual, taste, smell, touch and body awareness) information from the outside world reaches the brain. The outside world provides ‘food’ and inspiration to the brain, which makes the brain at first copy this outside world by the use of mirror neurons. The electric activation of the mirror neurons provides new connectivity and is basically the start of neural networks, which enables the brain to ‘do’ or be active little by little. Basically, a rich, inspirational environment provides the brain stimulation that triggers the brain to develop. For musicians there is no sound image without role models. 

Learning and focus (WK)

Although a great part of the daily learning process happens on an unconscious level, the brain can be stimulated to learn (or to perform) by using focus. Focus offers our brain the possibility to activate specific brain parts.  Again, focus is connected to the use of our senses. By consciously focusing on a sound, an image, a moving object, a smell, etc. the brain is stimulated to use certain brain parts. Focusing provides energy to a certain network so it can be activated. With this energy, it can grow or enhance connectivity or it can trigger the network to perform. 

Focus towards internalisation (WK)

When a learning process is new, that is, when the connectivity is still growing, strengthening or in the pruning stage, it cannot yet perform a result without help. This help is provided by focus. Focus enables the network to give and receive electric signals. When a learning process is new, we need all of our focus to use the network. For example, imagine we learn a new skill of moving our fingers in a certain way to make vibrato on a string. We can only do so with 100% focus. Then, little by little, we need less focus. When we can do something without any conscious focus, we call the skill internalized or automated. 

Multitasking (WK)

Most learning processes are not about single, isolated skills, but often more brain parts will be involved, or more areas within a local network will have to collaborate. As long as the connectivity is not yet internalized, we cannot multitask. This is a normal stage in learning. When practicing music, this often creates confusion, as many students believe they should be able to do all skills at the same time. However, in the case of non-internalized multitasking, this is not possible. 

Learning for musicians (WK)

For musicians, we talk about an ongoing learning process. This is mainly based on two levels. Firstly, when learning to play an instrument we have to learn a great variety of skills and musical knowledge. Developing our playing is an ongoing process, however, for professional players, this consists of mostly fine-tuning existing expertise.

Secondly, musicians have to learn or freshen-up repertoire again and again. The time that is given to musicians to learn new repertoire will vary on the job. Orchestral musicians often only have an extremely limited time to learn the music, and thus sometimes even sight-read during rehearsals. However, being able to play the repertoire is not the final goal. The next steps would be to master the repertoire and the instrumental playing, so the brain can focus on performing, ensemble playing, performing, telling a musical story to the public or paying attention to the conductor and the orchestra. 

Practice modes (GM)

Practising strategies will vary depending on whether the student is focussing on learning a piece, striving to achieve depth, speed and continuity, consolidating elements already learned, or preparing for performance. Different priorities will apply to these practice situations, and when students have a ‘toolbox’ of learning strategies, they can reflect and apply these in an independent and succesful way.  

Mental direction is crucial to effective practice, as many students fall in the trap of practising with their fingers instead of their brain. We learn what we practise and the brain does not make a distinction between correct or incorrect material. Whatever gets the most repetitions will get absorbed. For example, if a student stumbles repeatedly in the same place, then retakes and goes on to play the correct version of a passage on the second ‘try’, in effect a new piece has been created, with an extra phrase incorporated. Greater observation on the part of the student should be promoted, choosing specific elements to concentrate on during each practice or each repetition. Observation can then lead to reflection and planning for effective solving of individual practice tasks. Linear practice is also often overused, and not conducive to quick learning in the early stages. This is the practice ‘mode’ where pieces or fragments of pieces are played through, without the intention of improving a particular aspect. By establishing a clear purpose for each reiteration of a phrase, we avoid the ‘automatic pilot’ mode during the learning stages. Later on, when continuity is deemed to become the main priority, the play –through mode has a specific set of priorities, such as increasing concentration and stamina and preparing for performance.  

What is practice? (PA)

The aim of practicing should be learning, not practicing itself. Often students seem to forget this obvious fact. They keep on talking about amounts of practicing hours and about other things such as what they are going to practice next, but they pay too little attention to the goals and results of their work. 

It is important to read the notes right from the very start. There are several reasons for this. Old mistakes tend to reappear under pressure and undoing mistakes and replacing them with something new takes time and energy.

It’s essential to practice both the details and the wholeness of a piece. Musicians tend to focus on either one. Those who mainly focus on details can feel overwhelmed when playing pieces through because it can appear as a terrifying moment of truth that reveals their lack of skills. Practicing details is essential for good quality but playing pieces through is important for musical reasons and confidence. In a performance situation it’s not possible to make several attempts of the same passage - it should be accurate the first time. Practicing stamina requires playing through-sessions and whole concert programs.

For many musicians practicing seems to be an adventure. They explore pieces and find new interesting things. They look for musical ideas and search for ways to achieve them technically. Curiosity and enjoyment of this process is a typical attitude to practice. 

The best musicians seem to view practicing as some kind of problem solving activity. If one model of working doesn’t lead to solution, then they try another approach instead of repeating the same one over and over. Therefore difficulties in mastering a passage or piece can mean that you have not found the right way to master it, rather than having the perception that you are not good enough or that the piece is too difficult for you.

Improvisation with material from the current piece is also a good approach. It is possible to practice certain techniques, patterns, themes, chords, cadenzas and musical ideas by playing these in a creative way. Stepping away from the usual ways of practising can bring new freedom and enhance the playing.

It is recommended that you play old repertoire as well. Because you know the piece properly, it is possible to focus totally on the sound and phrasing. This also helps to actively maintain different techniques, music styles and tonalities and assists in mastering new material faster.

Performance practising (PA)

Performance practicing is one part of work that many students seem to forget. It is not only playing pieces through for example with a pianist. It is also practicing the right way to focus. In practicing it is important to do things in a very conscious way, but in the performance situation the focus should mainly be on musical communication and so you should include this as a part of your practice.  Playing through and tolerating mistakes and other displeasing elements is crucial. We need to learn strategies that help us to manage in these critical situations. 

Learning doesn’t happen in a linear way. There are learning crises, when everything seems to collapse, and long periods, when progress doesn’t seem to happen. These are normal parts of the learning process.  Growth continues happening anyway even though you can’t notice it. In a crisis situation the brain and nervous system need time for the new bits to become a part of the whole. It is important for you to allow time for the maturing process of your learning to happen.

Mental practicing (PA)

 It’s important to learn a piece correctly from the outset. It’s much easier to study the music carefully than to correct read errors – otherwise one has to unlearn the old note or rhythm first and then learn the new one. Old mistakes also tend to resurface under pressure.

Envisaging a mental image whilst playing is called visualisation. However, the term is misleading, as the word itself refers only to a visual image. A musician’s mental image naturally includes an aural image of the piece, as well as a kinaesthetic aspect – a feeling of what is happening in the body as you play.

Many musicians are afraid of memory lapses. The motor memory may fail and, if there’s nothing to catch on the conscious level, it will be difficult to keep going. Reading music and then visualising one’s own playing is an effective way of learning a piece by heart. The idea isn’t to get a photocopy of the notes in one’s mind, but rather to remember the intonation, chords, fingering, movements, excerpts and feelings, etc. Each person will create a distinctive personal image, and so everyone should try to find his or her own ideal methods for visualisation.

Instrumental technique means cooperation between the brain and the muscles. One must first form a clear mental image of the movements. Outlining movements in the mind promotes the formation of nerve connections and clarifies technique. Mental practicing is also a good tool good for searching for musical solutions. By singing, dancing or using images one can find new musical ideas.

Approaching practice

Practice – get started (GM)

As teachers, we need to train students to devise small scale practice goals, in other words specific tasks that can be achieved in a given time frame. This time frame has to start with the daily and weekly practice which then has to be coordinated with the larger long term plan of preparing for specific performances.  

When facing challenges, stop and analyse what is at the root of the problem first. Articulate what needs to be done and search for practical solutions, starting from the building blocks that are easy to understand and execute. Remember to organise your learning in shorter and more intense practice sessions as opposed to a prolonged practice session without clear goals. The use of repetition should be monitored and used in conjunction with reflection, to become planned and exploratory variation. It is important to articulate clearly what needs to change before repeating. Mental practice should be incorporated from the learning stages to define musical intention and inform consolidation of desired small scale outcomes. This approach is more intense, but leads to more effective results, making practice less tedious and more constructive. 

The definition of practicing – deliberate learning (WK)

When musicians talk about practicing, mostly is means an individual activity in a practice room, which includes playing the instrument or vocal training. Although this certainly is a part of practicing, this perspective might be too narrow minded. For classical musicians, this paradigm has created the side-effect of students spending long hours alone in a room, which might increase negative effects as frustration, boredom and physical and mental tension. It might be helpful to think of another definition for practicing, based on the goal of learning. 

We can then call practicing: deliberate focused learning

The difference with normal learning (as is part of daily life) would be that we spend a certain amount of time with a deliberate goal and purpose, with a deliberate choice of focus in a certain room or environment. The benefit of this approach is that many activities then can be part of practicing. E.g.: ensemble playing; listening to music whilst reading the score; observing classes from other students; mental practicing; physical warm-up; orchestra rehearsals’ visiting concerts etc. 

Deliberate practice (SW)

According to Anders Ericsson, learning and skill acquisition requires deliberate practice. He states that what is needed is a well-defined task with the right difficulty level for the individual, informative feedback and opportunities for repetition and corrections of errors. It is therefore important to balance practice with useful feedback from teachers. Studies revealed that expert musicians had done at least 10,000 hours of accumulated deliberate practice.

This purposeful work has three defining factors:

  1. That it’s a specific type of work
  2. Use of strategy
  3. Involves goal setting

Followers of Ericsson’s ‘expertise theory’ believe that deliberate practice is more important on the road to mastery than innate ability.

Practicing tools

Practicing for strength (EJ)

Practicing methods for strengthening the muscles and preparing the body for harder practicing leads you to planning your physical practicing in a better way. Correctly timed practicing and proper recovery will ensure that you build up your strength and endurance and become physically confident when you play. You will feel less guilty in your free time and maintain your motivation.

Weekly practicing (EJ)

 Here are a few ideas to your daily practicing for varying heavier and lighter days. Play your repertoire through more on heavy days and work with the details and have more breaks on a lighter day. Vary your time of practicing every second day. Work with ‘physically more demanding’ music on heavier days and ‘physically lighter’ music on lighter days. Play more loud things on your heavy days and more soft/ sensitive things on your lighter days.

Practicing methods for long term practicing: Play ‘physically heavier’ repertoire on heavy weeks and ‘physically lighter’ repertoire on light weeks and a mixture of that in medium weeks. Add more time to your heavy days of practicing as you approach your heavy week of practicing. Remember that the recovery week is just a little easier week than your light week of practicing. Correctly timed loading and recovery will ensure that you build up your strength and endurance.

Flow practice tools (EN)

Every musician knows the feeling of being completely absorbed in what they are doing in their practice so that the outside world no longer seems to exist and the sense of normal time disappears. This psychological state of flow comes about through a strong focus on the present moment. There are many present-focused tools that we can use to encourage flow feelings. These are based around the following five elements:

  1. Comfortable body feeling
  2. Sensory immersion
  3. Exploration for problem solving
  4. Imaginative ideas
  5. Enjoyment levels

How to use open questions with the flow tools

You can focus on these elements in the moment through the creation of open questions. These questions will stimulate you to set clear, realistic goals and notice immediate feedback when you actively pursue them. A focus on the senses and expression can be encouraged through asking yourself questions such as ‘Do I have a relaxed feeling of contact with my instrument?’ or ´What is the expressive purpose of these notes?’ You can create your own questions around these topics and use explorative ideas to create novelty. For example, you can improvise and ‘play around’ with your material rather than just repeating it or playing it through. This will give you more enjoyment and reduce monotony. Ask yourself ‘Am I exploring my piece or am I just playing through?’ To stimulate your imagination ask yourself ‘What colours and textures can I imagine for this phrase?’ or ‘What story goes with the expressive feeling of this passage?’ 

Check your energy levels

Make sure that you regularly check your relaxation and energy levels as this is essential for maintaining absorption and not getting tense or exhausted. Check the levels using 1 to 10 by regularly asking yourself, ‘If 10 is extremely tense and 1 is very relaxed, how relaxed am I?’ If your tension level is too high, change something to lower your tension levels, such as taking three deep breaths and then check the level again. If you find you are losing connection with your body feeling, stop and do a series of whole body movements such as walking, running or jumping and rub your hands together vigorously to get awareness back again quickly. Remember that when you get tired you will not be able to concentrate fully, so stop and refresh yourself so that you can start with renewed energy afterwards.

Keep enjoying yourself

If you are not enjoying your practice there will be no flow feelings and therefore your learning will be minimised. If this happens to you then change something immediately to focus on enjoyment. Check your goals to make sure that your challenge levels are not set too high as this leads to frustration and negativity. Break your larger goal into smaller, easier ones. Check your focus and enjoyment levels by asking yourself ‘What can I do now to enjoy myself more?’ It is important to remember that you can take control of your experience in every moment of your practice to have maximum enjoyment and learning and minimum stress - it is *your *practice, so take full ownership of it!  

Tools for the practice room (SW)

Here is a list of eight practice tools to try out. Only by experimenting with them, will you get to know which ones work best for what. Using several different tools and methods for a single task or section of music is preferable to only using one or two. The main thing is that you stay alert and engaged. Check after one or several days to see if and how the skill or piece of music has developed.

Eight Practice tools

1. Random Practice: Instead of repeating a phrase many times and then going to the next ‘problem’, try playing difficult sections in random order, so you are repeating them, but not directly. This way your mind stays alert.

2. Varied Practice: By varying the character of a phrase (and not just the rhythm or tempo), you can get to know it better – both technically and musically.

3. Practicing Musical Intention: APT (audiation Practice tool): Vividly imagine the phrase you are about to play, then sing and ‘dance’ it (use gestures). In this way you are practice what you want to say, can send the right messages to your body about how to play it.

4. Practicing in Flow: Explore the section of music by alternating your awareness between the contact with the instrument (especially where the sound is produced), the sound you are making (it’s resonance and overtones) and the ease with which you are achieving your result. In addition ‘play around’ with the phrase (improvise) in order to get to know it better.

5. Desirable Difficulties: Sometimes it helps to deliberately make a section more demanding in order to keep yourself alert and engaged.

6. Exploring Tonality: Choose a key and start by playing a scale. Explore it by varying speed, rhythm, color.

7. Grow a sound: Start with a single tone or fragment and develop it slowly by gradually adding and changing elements. Finish by coming back to the original fragment or tone.

8. Super Slow: In order to get a section of music into your body, practice a section extremely slowly, bringing awareness to every shift, sound and feeling.

How to use the tools

Here are keys to how to approach practice in a way that helps you to learn effectively and efficiently:

  • Intention: Decide what skill/piece/segment you want to work on
  • Exploration: Use one or more tools to explore the section, play with them
  • Engagement: Notice if you are engaged, bored or stressed
  • Adjust: Change the method or task accordingly
  • Make and develop your own tools and document the tools suggested by your teacher

More about Random Practice (SW)

Most people tend to practice repertoire by repeatedly playing it through. Although this can show improvements after a few repetitions, this method does not always ensure that the piece is better the next day – i.e. learned. During repetitive practice, the information stays in the short-term memory. The brain does not recognize the necessity of getting it right the first time, and relies on playing everything several times. Random practice helps to retain the information in the long-term memory. In order to keep the mind alert, it helps to change the task (section of music) more often. Although many repetitions are needed in order to learn something, practice should not be repetitive. The same amount of music and repetitions can be played, but in a more random order. Results are not obvious immediately, but after one or several days. This is also a useful way to practice orchestral excerpts when training for an audition.

More about Varied Practice

Being able to play only one version of a piece of music does not lead to technical security or musical versatility. By practicing a piece or phrase is a variety of ways – even ways you would not dream of performing it – results in better learning and more confidence. Rather than only varying single technical aspects (e.g. tempo, rhythm, articulation, dynamics), it is better to vary the entire character of or emotion behind a piece. For example play it as if it is a lullaby, a march, with a light dancing quality or in a sombre introspective way etc. In this way, a musician is not only stretching technical and musical boundaries but practicing using clear and vivid musical intention. When the ‘desired version’ is then played again (especially after a day or two) it is more secure – by exploring the forest around the path, the path is clearer.