Updated: Apr 14, 2022
The Path of an Aspiring Musician
For many, learning a musical instrument has always been a pipe dream. It's an exciting journey to begin, but can take a lot of time and energy to master. Today we have a number of helpful tools to aid us in climbing over the many hurdles holding us back. Let’s take a look!
It goes without saying that without practice, we won’t get anywhere with learning a musical instrument. Some teachers will tell us to practice for a set time or a set number of times per song at the end of the lesson as we’re going home, but how exactly do you practice? Have you ever felt great after a lesson and then totally lost at home by yourself? For some of us, this has lead us to practice only during a lesson which is a fast track to getting nowhere on our instrument! This feeling of being lost when practicing on our own is only natural because when we’re at home, we don’t have that immediate feedback to help keep us from falling off track. So what do we do? If practicing at home isn’t creating any results, we're here to help!
The first thing you need is a desire to overcome the challenges in front of you. Learning to play music is one of the most immediate forms of problem solving and revolves around two important questions:
Am I playing correctly?
How do I play this better?
If you're asking yourself these questions, then you're on the right track! It means you're practicing with an active mind and a determination to improve.
Your best bet when trying to figure out how to practice is to ask your teacher during your lesson. If you have a good teacher, chances are they’re already working on helping you improve upon your weaknesses in class, but they might not have formally explained to you how practice can be executed effectively at home. Here are some good ideas to help keep you on track when you’re practicing on your own:
Just like with anything you’re trying to accomplish, having a plan is critical. Start with setting goals.
What are your longterm goals? What pieces do you want to learn? Exams? Performances? These can be monthly or yearly goals.
What are your short-term goals? What skills do you want to master? Sections of a piece? These can be daily or weekly goals.
Once goals have been determined, where do we start? Maybe in one practice session you might want to focus on just reading the notes and translating them as fast as you possibly can with a timer, or maybe you want to work on keeping a steady flow. In this case, you’d want to try and run through your piece with as little stops as possible.
Maybe there are some rhythmic sections you’re not sure how to play or sound messy when you attempt to run through it. Don’t just ignore it and run passed it; these are the sections that need the most practice. Instead, a better idea would be to skip everything else and practice this tricky section exclusively.
How about expression? If your goal is to improve that, then focuing on playing all the correct notes is less important for this exercise and more important to look at the greater musical idea. While practicing this, you might even find that the notes and rhythms just magically fall into place!
The most important way to accomplish goals and make progress is to set those goals BEFORE beginning your practice session so you are practicing with purpose.
Try listening to good recordings of the music you’re learning. Music is one of those things that stick in our brains whether we like it or not and the more music we take in, the more we’re able to put out. When using music listening as a form of practice, it’s very important that we exclusively dedicate our attention to the listening. Focus intently on the quality of the sound, phrasing, dynamics and tone and then try to imagine how you might be able to create that effect. Try reading the sheet music while you listen to the piece to further help you envision how how everything comes together. These days, you can often see a performer’s hands in a video which gives you yet another resource to help you with your own improvement!
This should be done regularly. Grab your tablet and upload your digital score to a sheet music app like ForScore or PiaScore so you can mark your score up as you listen. Highlight dynamics that stand out to you, important articulations, special harmonic or melodic moments, pedal. Anything you hear that needs to be practiced. Marking your own score is one of the best ways to place that information in your short term and long term memory.
It’s easy to get into the habit of practicing from start to finish. We’ve all been there, and in some cases this form of practice is a great way to scope out the musical terrain; but have you ever felt like your practice session produced very little improvement? Focusing on just a small portion of the piece will help you see much quicker progress. Try repeating a bar or two in a loop, work on polishing one musical phrase before moving forward to the next one or even practice one hand at a time before putting it back together again. Maybe practicing through just the A section, or playing until the repeat sign would prove to be a more reasonable chunk to handle at this time. Whatever you choose to do, it’s important that you choose a distinct beginning and ending point in your music.
4. Slow practice
Practicing music slowly is critical in not only developing a well polished piece, but also for improving our overall technical and artistic abilities at our instrument. It can be really tempting to try and play a piece at full tempo when we’re not ready. When we give into that temptation we risk sliding down a slippery slope towards a sloppy unrefined performance. One thing is for certain, it’s harder to fix a bad habit that’s been ingrained into our muscle memory than it is to learn the same passage from scratch. If you’re finding yourself making more mistakes when playing slowly, that’s a dead giveaway that you need to practice slowly - if you can’t play slowly, then you can’t play it very well quickly either. If you master the techniques at a slow tempo, over time you’ll be able to play quickly with the same level of accuracy and confidence!
5. Finger numbers
A big part of practice revolves around building strong muscle memory. When practicing, try to use the same fingers each time you run through a particular excerpt. It’s inefficient to practice differently in every practice session. If you’ve built muscle memory around the “wrong” finger numbers, you may end up finding yourself having to relearn part of your piece later on just to get through it without tripping over your fingers. Mark these numbers in your score as you work through it. At the same time, allow yourself to adjust your fingering if you find yourself struggling through a section. Try multiple options and settle on the fingering that allows you to move smoothly and comfortably through a section.
Rhythm is one of the things where the concept can be fairly simple to understand, but execution can sometimes leave us scratching our head. Counting beats while keeping it steady can be quite overwhelming to manage when we’re also translating notes and making the right sound on our instrument. If you’re playing out of rhythm, your performance is going to sound off even if you play all the right notes! Luckily there’s a tool for that and it’s called a metronome.
The metronome is a tool that makes a steady pulse or beat to help keep track of rhythm for you as you practice. These pulses are measured in beats per minute (BPM) and most can be adjusted anywhere between 35 to 250. Using one can be a challenge at first, but listening closely to the pulses can help you determine if you’re rushing ahead of the beat or falling behind.
There are many different types of metronome from physical to digital. These days, most digital keyboards have one built-in, but they aren’t always the easiest to configure to suit the song you’re practicing. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what kind of metronome you use, but usually the mechanical ones are quite versatile and easy to adjust to suit your needs. There’s no need to spend extra money to obtain this great tool though - Google has one built right into the search engine! Check it out here. Can't hear the tick or have trouble staying on beat? Some metronomes use a drum beat instead. Apps like SuperMetronome are great for learning to play to a steady beat and can often work better than a typical metronome.
Metronomes aren’t the only tool in the box to help us keep a steady beat though; there are also a plethora of apps on the App Store and Google Play that make practicing rhythm fun and interactive! I’ll say no more, check these out:
This is a great, yet simple little app - it will make a rhythm and you just have to tap back what you heard correctly to move forward. As you progress, the rhythms get more challenging to help prepare you for more complicated music.
therhythmtrainer.com Go to website
What’s great about this is that you don’t need a dedicated app to use this, any browser will do the trick and you even get to practice writing the notation or choosing the correct rhythm from a list of options.
Rhythm Sight Reading Trainer App Store
A great app that helps to give a solid basis for a good rhythmic feel. What’s also great about this app is that it can help you improve your sight reading skills.
Am I playing correctly
How do I play this better?
If you’re asking yourself these questions, then you’re on the right track! It means you’re practicing with an active mind and are determined to improve!
Happy practicing, students!