How to Practice Like a Professional Musician

Updated on March 29, 2020
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Tong Keat has an M.A. in Violin Performance from MTSU, TN. He is the founder of Just Violin—a free resources site for violinists.

Practicing is an integral part of learning to play a musical instrument. It is how musicians improve their skills and become better. A good musician does not turn skillful overnight. Instead, it is through years and years of hard work. Practicing a musical instrument can be enjoyable and, at the same time, physically and mentally exhausting.

When it comes to choosing your method of practicing, it is very important to understand that good practice habits allow for the rapid development of solid skills and techniques, while bad practice habits may hinder progress or even cause physical injuries.

A Four-Step Plan for Practicing an Instrument

  1. Set goals
  2. Coordinate mindfully
  3. Evaluate
  4. Repeat constructively

1. Set Goals

People with no musical background tend to assess music practice by the hours a person spent playing the musical instrument. Ironically, many musicians also share this misconception. Sometimes, musicians confuse leisure playing with deliberate practice. It is perfectly fine to play through your favorite piece for leisure as many times as you like. However, when it comes to practicing, there should be a clear goal about what to achieve in each session. Practicing without a goal is like building a house without a blueprint.

For professional musicians, they usually set their goals on the more challenging parts of their music. For students, it could be anything that the teacher has assigned them to improve on. If you have a somewhat lofty goal to achieve within a week (for example, getting the tempo up significantly), it is wise to break it down into smaller and attainable goals each day (increasing the metronome mark gradually).

2. Coordinate Mindfully

Mindfulness is crucial to everything we do in our lives. Mindfulness means being in the moment. In your practice, being conscious and aware of each action and intention can significantly enhance the effectiveness of your practice sessions. It is not unusual for our minds to wander off while the fingers move in "autopilot" mode. Such practice habits do not yield any positive result.

It is through deliberate coordination in the mind that one learns to tackle the problematic spots in the music. Some people may find it hard to stay focused over some time. However, just like any muscle in our body, we can increase our attention span and remain mindful and conscious throughout our practice sessions by consistently training.

The "Four Stages of Competence" model describes how we learn a skill. It is also applicable to the music learning process. To get to stage 2, we need awareness. To get to stage 3, we need coordination. To get to stage 4, we need repetition.
The "Four Stages of Competence" model describes how we learn a skill. It is also applicable to the music learning process. To get to stage 2, we need awareness. To get to stage 3, we need coordination. To get to stage 4, we need repetition.

3. Evaluate

Evaluation is the most crucial part of practicing because it tells you whether your effort was well worth it. For musicians, this could be recording our own practice sessions. We all know that we can get different insights into our playings when looking back at our recordings. A lot of people tend to overlook the importance of this, or simply take it for granted.

If you have been stuck with a particular passage for a while, it is worth evaluating whether your method of practicing that passage is effective or not. If things have not been going well, do not be afraid to change your approach. Some problems are harder to identify than others, but never leave out the chance to seek a better solution.

4. Repeat Constructively

If everything has been working well, then it is time to put your practice method through the "solidifying process." It means repeating the entire procedure until it becomes a natural part of you. If you wonder why a well-trained musician can effortlessly perform a challenging piece of music, it is because, after countless repetitions, playing that particular piece has become a habit.

Please keep in mind that it is still important to be mindful and to evaluate your own playing at this stage, as bad habits may even develop without your knowledge.

Once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That's it. And what's more, the people at the very top don't work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.

— Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success

© 2019 Goh Tong Keat


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      7 months ago

      Good advice it help a lot. in fact I'm encouraged. thanks for these.


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