10 Tips for Practicing Your Instrument at Home

April 7, 2020

tips on how to practice your musical instrument at home

Daily practice at home is an essential component to steady and significant progress on any instrument. When starting a new student, I want parents to be aware of the dedication needed for practicing at home. Here are some helpful ideas that I have seen work well for not only my students and others' students, but also my own children.

1. Choose the same time to practice every day, if possible.

Find a regular activity or existing habit and consistently practice after that activity. For example, coming home from school and having a snack may be what you do right before practicing. This will allow the student to get accustomed to the routine and instead of asking IF they have to practice, it will be assumed. Giving the student an option invites many battles in the future.

It is hard to get into this routine for some, and I highly recommend setting an alarm on your phone to get used to this in your schedule. Once it goes off, drop what you are doing and start the practicing right away. I also recommend (for the youngest students) to set a timer for 5 minutes and actually stop practicing after 5 minutes for the first week. It will leave the student wanting more and in turn will make practicing something to look forward to. Setting the timer will also let the student know that you, the parent/guardian, are ultimately in charge of whether the student is done or not.

For my students, the number of minutes or hours practiced is really just a guideline. The most important goal is to actually improve one's playing efficiently - not simply long practice times.
To increase practice time, I recommend breaking up the time into two separate practice sessions and increasing each (so increasing from 30 to 40 mins for example, I would recommend practicing two 20 minute sessions).

I recommend reading Atomic Habits by James Clear. He outlines how to create new habits in a very understandable and effective way.

2. Prepare your practice space.

- Have a music stand for your music (not leaning music on a bookcase)
- Quiet with as few distractions as possible (away from people and noises)
- Comfortable temperature for the instrument with safe storage (not near a vent or outside door)
- Good lighting to properly see the music
- Mirror for checking position, especially for violinists
-A parent to help (for younger students)

3. Take notes at every lesson and review them daily.

For parents and older students, I recommend carefully following the lesson notes given to you by your teacher or take notes during the lesson yourself. Read them and use them as a guideline (even a checklist) for your practice time.  Be sure there is a noticeable improvement made before moving on to the next thing. You should feel confident in your improvements before your next lesson!

4. Ask your teacher questions if you have them.

You should always leave a lesson knowing exactly what to practice and what is expected of you for the next lesson. If you don't understand something, ask your teacher to clarify. If you go home and are confused on day one, please reach out to your teacher and let them know during the week. It is better to wait for clarification than to practice incorrectly.

5. Listen to recordings of your pieces every day.

We learn by sight (reading music), touch (muscle memory for finger placement) and listening.
I always ask my students if they recall learning the song "Happy Birthday" by reading the music. Every single one of them says "no". They learned it by ear!

Listening to professional recordings of their pieces on a daily basis actually trains the ear for what they should expect from their own playing. They will also be able to identify incorrect notes, rhythms, tempo markings and dynamics in their own playing by comparing what they are used to hearing. Usually this is a revelation that something is simply "not right", and that can be enough.

6. Track your practice time + write down goals and improvements.

In a practice notebook, keep track of your goals and what you have improved on daily. Recognizing these can be incredibly encouraging and allows you to appreciate what you are accomplishing! As a teacher, I try to share the improvements I see (the ones that have been difficult, especially) with my students because so often we only talk about what they need to work on. This can be something parents reinforce at home as well.

For younger students, parents should focus on only 1-3 small goals at a time. Fixing every single position issue and note can be incredibly frustrating and will make the student feel as though they cannot fix it at all. Fix one thing and then maintain it while other things get fixed. After the teacher has explained what needs to be improved, gentle reminders (a tap on the wrist, for example) can be more effective than stopping the student from playing and explaining in length why and how the student should fix an issue for the 17th time. I will usually say something like, "When I would like you to relax your shoulder, I will tap gently on it to let you know while you are playing". Encouragement goes a very long way, especially in the early years.

7. Watch performances in person and online regularly.

It can be easy to forget why we do what we do in music. Listening and watching talented professionals can be a wonderful way to enjoy music while also inspiring growth in a student's playing. My dad would take me to concerts and take me backstage to meet the performers. I always went home with such a renewed love for playing! We are incredibly fortunate to have so many wonderful performances on YouTube and should make use of them!

If you don't know who or what to watch, ask your teacher - they are wonderful resources and may have performances of their own to share!

8. Use rewards sparingly and use them for going above and beyond what is expected.

When I teach lessons, I try to make it as clear as possible what is expected of the students. Students can earn stars in my studio, but they are primarily used to motivate and encourage those who struggle.

At home, it can be tempting to bribe or make many promises to get the student to do what they should. If you do offer a reward, I recommend only doing so when the student goes above and beyond what their teacher expects from them. For example, if they are supposed to practice 6 days for 30 minutes each, offer an award if they practice 40 minutes or 7 days. This will give them an incentive to work harder rather than become a form of manipulation or bribery.
Students who are offered a reward for what is expected of them will soon refuse to work without a reward being offered. Making expectations very clear will allow the student to succeed AND exceed expectations. 

9. Commit to at least one year.

I know this may sound intense, but starting new habits is not something that is always 100% enjoyable. Much of the fruit of hard practicing does not show up right away. Yes, you can play a new piece and it is incredibly satisfying but once you start working on more advanced repertoire, it may not feel as fun.

When we give ourselves the option to quit, we will always consider it when things get difficult. Always. If we say we will stick it out for a set time, it not only gives us the ability to push through, but we will actually be able to be proud of accomplishing something.

I once taught a student whose parents would ask her if she wanted to quit almost on a weekly basis. It frustrated me because I honestly don't think she would have considered it unless it had been offered to her as an option. She seemed to love playing, but her parents were tired of the struggle getting her to practice. Looking back, I truly think they would have struggled less if the focus was on what could improve and in turn, teach their daughter that quitting is not always the answer. Much growth can happen through perseverance. 

10. Take videos performing polished pieces.

Taking videos is a great way to show students what they looked like or sounded like before and it is always such a fun way to see the progress! I also love being able to hear when their vibrato really took off or when they finally got that spiccato right. It is a beautiful thing to be able to appreciate your own playing. 

I hope you find these helpful and please share your own in the comments!

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