How to most effectively practice your musical instrument

I received an email from a subscriber asking an excellent question. He asks how he can optimize his time in the three hours per day he dedicates to practicing. Is it better to have fewer things to work on and spend more time on those, or to practice on more things and extend the total practice time per day.

He goes on to admit that the answer depends on several factors, and he is exactly right about that.

The more important factor is the purpose for your practicing. In other words, what do you want to accomplish within the time you have?

The questioner appears to be a jazz player, so that helps define the options. The list of possible practice topics include working on: basic technique, tone and projection (for wind players), articulation, technical fluency, ear training (connecting mind and instrument), learning tunes (transcribing, recording, and listening back to the playing of them), and scales and patterns. That may not be a complete list, but I think those are the major areas.

How much time?

So the question is, how much time should you spend on each? Should you spend time on each? I think a big part of the answer lies in knowing what you need the most work on.

Personally, I practice (or play) most every day. As a trombone player, I’m always dedicating a portion of my limited time to technique. Not that I expect to greatly improve my technical fluency at this point in my life, but I practice in order to maintain what technical abilities I do possess at the highest level possible. Trombone is a beast and, at least in my experience, requires consistent regular workouts in order to maintain the fluency needed to improvise to the extent of your musical capability.

That involves, lip slurs, interval studies, Rochut, Bach Cello Suites, etc. It also involves doing a fair bit of my practicing outside on the top of a nearby mountain. Playing into the “void” makes my practice time much more efficient because no matter what I play, I am forced to produce a big tone and project it without the reinforcement of surrounding walls.

The majority of my practicing, however, is building my instrument/ear connection. Since that is the most important skill at this stage of my life, THAT is the focus of my time.

Efficiency

I think one of the most important skills for practicing is doing so with maximum efficiency. Efficiency in this context means accomplishing more than one thing at a time. An example for me is practicing outside. I can play tunes in various keys, and do free improvisation all while working on my tone, strength, and projection.

I try to include several aspects of practice topics into one exercise. An example is when I need to record a track for a book or video. Recently I put together a video to convince a number of players to be part of an upcoming project I am creating. I wanted a background music track for the video so I did so combining the following aspect of what could be considered practicing:

  • Improvising over a tune for three and a half minutes which involved practicing an important tune, ingraining the changes in my mind, forcing myself to avoid patterns and my clichés. the tune is Just Friends.
  • Putting that tune in a different key from the original. ‘This helped me with the ear/instrument connection by getting me away from familiar patterns I might fall into and forcing me to listen more to the chords. Instead of G, I played it in C. That is also a better key for the trombone range.
  • I was able to record my playing a listen back critically. Recording yourself and listening back is such an important part of practicing. I cannot over-emphasize its value. As I listen back, one of the things I critically listen for is falling back on familiar licks, which I may not hear as well when I’m playing in real time.
  • Anytime you record yourself, it informs you about your phrasing, articulation, dynamics, note range, intonation, and other things that you may be trying to improve.

I should also mention that the solo I played over the changes to Just Friends gave me the opportunity to think about mixing since I was recording this as background music under my speaking voice for the video. That meant that the trombone was lower in the mix and had more reverb than it normally would be. The project got me out of my usual mixing habits.

Here is the track I recorded. The trombone is boosted in the mix from the original and the reverb is attenuated a bit as well.

Some players like to have a schedule or at least a list of the things they want to work on. If that keeps you disciplined and focused, by all means create a grid with the things to practice on the left column and the days of the week across the top.

Think about how you can work on multiple aspects of your playing at once. Recording Just Friends in C last night gave me the opportunity to spend my limited time working on a number of things and in the process, creating the music track I needed.

As you contemplate the things to practice, consider what you need to work on in order to be the player to which you aspire. Then combine multiple aspects of those playing needs into one activity. Create a practice journal or grid if that keeps you on track.

And most important of all, practice something as close to each day as the available time in your life allows. Practicing a little each day is far better than a lot each Saturday.

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