If you’ve been playing a musical instrument for awhile, and you’re feeling a little stale in your practice, here are some tips that might encourage you to keep pressing forward to improve your technique.

If you’re sensing the need for a more structured/disciplined practice and study regime, I — and most professional musicians — would concur that you should act on that uneasy sensation and find ways to fix the practice experience. There are oodles of articles on the web regarding philosophies of “How to practice,” and many are excellent, but here’s a link from my hero Wynton Marsalis — a pretty unimpeachable source: How To Practice.

In a nuts and bolts vein, an effective division of time spent practicing might go like this:

1. 1/4 of your time doing warm-up.

2. 1/4 playing scales, arpeggios, repetitive figures. Every instrument has specialized method books of this stuff. It’s the heart and core of your musical work. Remember (in addition to playing slowly and perfectly, as they always tell you) that you’re an ARTIST always striving to create a thing of beauty. If your mind-game is to play the most beautiful, musical expression of a scale, the potentially boring exercise will become challenging, fun, exciting and WORTHWHILE. Which key to work on for a particular day? After you’ve gained and maintained general familiarity with all, focus on the ones that you’re performing actual music in before moving on to something else or something new.

3. 1/4 general “rehearsal” of the pieces you’re expected to perform (This and #4, below, may include improvisation if that’s part of what’s required of you.)

4. 1/4 specific work on the difficult and challenging parts that you need to master.

Note that noodling during work breaks — or other “quick niches” in your day — is not a prescribed method for finding continued musical success.  Also, playing for pure enjoyment, noodling, exploring new pieces, active and critical listening… should all be part of your regular activity, but not confused with focused practicing.

11 Comments

  1. Thanks for these outstanding tips, Jazzman/John/Jack! SMILE! Your real-world experience is a great guide for those who are starting out and might get a little discouraged during the learning process.

    I find that doing the repetitive work of scales and even just vamping on a certain rhythm during practice can put me in a trance-like state where time slows down and the world around me melts and I find my center calm. That’s my first goal when I sit down with my guitar every day.

  2. Thank you for specifically mentioning noodling. It is SO annoying. I just want to yank their fiddle out of their hands and bonk them over the head with it. (Not literally of course.) I often wonder how many musicians suffer from overuse injuries because they noodle instead of resting during breaks…

    1. :^) Yes, unfortunately some players can’t help themselves and noodle during rehearsals (that’s annoying and impolite) or in the middle of otherwise focused practice (that’s undisciplined attention span, I think). But in the right place, noodling is an absolutely vital and essential part of a musician’s work. For me, a lot of ideas for jazz improvisation begin here. I’ll try to link a video to one of today’s greatest clarinetists as he discusses “Noodling.”

  3. It’s nice to meet you, Jack!

    I think we could even apply your good tips to many things we do in life. I teach American Sign Language, and I’m already finding ways to translate your techniques from music to the language of the Deaf! Thank you!