Music Teacher's Helper Blog

A Shared Handout – “How to Practice”

Many of my students are traveling over the Thanksgiving holiday, which necessitated a plan for make up lessons.  This year, I decided to present a master class entitled “How to Practice” as a group make up lesson.  Here’s what I passed out to my students.  I hope you find this helpful for your own students.  Feel free to copy it if you’d like.  It’s currently geared toward percussion students, but 5 minutes of editing could make it applicable to any instrument.

Step One: Ask “Why Am I Practicing?”

Clarity is the key to effective, efficient practice.  Every time you pick up a pair of drumsticks, ask yourself “what am I trying to accomplish?”.  Be as specific as possible.  Here is a list of potential reasons to practice (not all inclusive):

To work on a specific technique

  • To work on a specific piece of music
  • To explore a certain style of music
  • To work on speed
  • To work on endurance
  • To increase your independence (one limb or four)
  • To improve your sight reading
  • To prepare for a specific performance
  • To work on showmanship
  • To relax
  • To have fun

It’s perfectly okay to go into a practice session with the intent to relax and have fun.  Playing your favorite songs and just messing around can be a great way to relieve stress.  Make sure, however, that you’re aware you’re practicing to have fun and not to “get better.” 

Step Two: Get Ready to Practice

Gather all the materials you need for practicing.  This may include your sticks, practice pad, metronome, iPod/CD player, clock/stopwatch, sheet music, method book, and/or earplugs.  The materials you need depend on your answer in Step One.  Getting ready to practice may also include going to the bathroom or grabbing a drink to take into your practice session.  When I sit down to practice, I try and make sure I won’t have to leave my practice space until I’ve achieved my goals for the day.

I also make sure my environment is suitable for practicing.  Here’s a brief list of just some of the distractions I’ve encountered over the years: too hot/cold, too dark/bright, music stand is wobbling, spider in the corner, broken sticks/instrument, too windy (outside or fan), too much ambient noise.  Eliminate as many distractions and discomforts as you can before you start practicing.  By doing this, you will have a more productive practice session.

Finally, a note on earplugs: If you’re practicing drum set, use earplugs if at all possible.  Overexposure to loud noise (like a drum set) can cause minor injuries (like headaches) as well as major ones (like tinnitus).  As a musician, your ears are one of your most important assets.  Do everything you can to protect them!

Step Three: Warm Up

Start each practicing session with some simple stretches and breathing exercises, proceeding to some large, slow to medium tempo movements after a couple minutes.  On a practice pad, this might include playing eight eighth notes per hand for a few minutes.  On a drum set, this might include playing a simple groove with some basic fills.  Warming up prepares you both physically and mentally for practicing and helps prevent injuries.

Don’t think warming up is necessary?  Try this experiment: Practice everyday for a week without warming up.  Just dive right into whatever you’re working on.  Make a journal entry for each practice session, noting what you worked on, how easy things were to play, and your general feelings about the session.  Then do the same thing the next week, only this time, spend a decent amount of time deliberately warming up.  After the two weeks, compare your journal entries to see if/how warming up actually benefits you.

Step Four: Practice with Focus

This is the meat of the practice session.  Focus your efforts by making sure every exercise or song you play relates back to your daily goal.  Be thorough as well.  Slow things down if necessary, and make sure you’re really mastering each exercise/technique.  Glossing over something and saying “close enough” may be fine on any given day, but it’s a terrible long-term practice strategy.

When you’re practicing, you should sound somewhat awful (as though you’re playing something too difficult for you).  In fact, you should be practicing something too difficult for you!  It’s easy to fall into the trap of practicing things you already know how to do.  Practicing older material is probably more fun and will make you feel better about your playing ability, but it doesn’t help you improve.  As one of my former teachers said, “time spent practicing something you can already do is time wasted.”  Make sure you’re continually pushing yourself during practice time.

Step Five: Write It Down

After you finish practicing, write down what your goals were, what you worked on, and how much time you spent practicing.  I also include metronome markings and “general feelings” in my practice logs.  Keeping a practice log helps you stay on track, and it can also give you a sense of accomplishment.  For instance, you might notice that you could only play a certain exercise at 80 bpm a month ago, but today you can play it at 120 bpm.  This encouragement can spur to you practice even more.

Step Six: Rinse and Repeat

Make practicing a part of your daily routine.  It’s helpful to work on the same things for a week or two at a time.  Instead of working on shuffles one day, sambas the next, and orchestral snare drum the next, pick on thing and work on it for the whole week.  That way, you get a better overall feel for the style/technique/piece, and you can better explore the nuances whatever you’re working on.

If you have any questions, feel free to ask me during our lessons.  Happy practicing!

About the Author

Jon Dittert
Jon Dittert teaches drum set and percussion at the Drum Center of Lexington in Lexington, KY. He has also served as a percussion assistant to several Fayette County middle schools. Jon has performed with former SNL trumpeter Graham Breedlove, Emmy award winning producer/bassist Eric Suttman, saxophonist Bobby Streng, and Christian recording artist Sarah Bauer. Currently, he performs regularly a... [Read more]

3 Comments

  1. How To Practise

    Hi Jon, thanks for the excellent article. MTH seems to be on a practice roll after the thanksgiving break. Another article for me to link to!

  2. David Motto

    Great post. Step 2 is especially good. Getting ready seems to be the step that most music students skip, and your to-do list for getting ready is a must-read for all young musicians.

  3. The Art of Practicing | TubaHead

    […] A Shared Handout – “How to Practice” by Jon Dittert […]

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