Tag Archives: planning & organisation

Three Key Practice Principles

New_Years_Resolutions.JPGIn the theme of New Years resolutions, we’re taking a look at what makes practice good practice. Many musicians resolve to practice more, but that often falls by the wayside because they don’t have good practice habits. This post will give you three key principles for practicing that will make it easier to stick to your goals!

1. Quality over quantity

It can be very easy to get bogged down in ideas of how long we should practice for. Should someone at grade 1 practice for ten minutes or thirty? Shouldn’t someone at grade 8 do three hours? It can make even the best of us feel inadequate when we start to measure the quantity of practice rather than the quality of practice.

Doing three hours of practice is useless if you stop focusing after thirty minutes. For singers, long practice sessions are impossible as our voices get tired. Instead, aim to make the most of the time you have, whether it’s ten minutes or ten hours. Make sure you know what you want to achieve in a practice session – having a routine can really work wonders for this. I usually start with scales and exercises, move on to studies, then classical work, and finish up with the musical theatre repertoire. If I have time, I might pick an old favourite to run over at the end. You might find a different order works better. If you’re short on time, why not choose to work on song A on Mondays, song B on Tuesdays and song C on Wednesdays? If you already know what needs to be done, you can get right on and do it.

Another key to getting quality time is to have everything in one place. Keep your music on the piano, or the music stand, and keep your notes from your teacher with them.

Finally, it’s better to go deeper into a short section of your piece than to sing the whole song over and over fluffing bits of it. Sing through, and then work on the bits that you’re messing up. It’s always better to work in small chunks. Which leads on to my next key principle…


2. Little and Often

Not only is it important to aim for quality over quantity, but that quality time should be a daily occurrence. For singers especially, it’s far better to get through scales in the shower every day and nothing else, than to just do one mega three hour session on the day before your lesson.

Muscles develop best when theyare stretched and used a little bit at a time, but frequently – this is just as true for the tiny muscles in your larynx as it is for the big muscles in your leg. Marathon runners do shorter runs every other day and build up, rather than running a half marathon every weekend and nothing else. Treat your singing practice like that. Sing daily, but do a short focused burst rather than a long gruelling slog. It’ll feel far less arduous! Plus, by singing for a short time every day, it becomes habit and you’ll find it easier to make space for it in your life.


3. The Principle of 80:20

80:20 is an amazingly accurate ratio for many things in human life, but for musicians, I like to think of it as 80% work, 20% fun. In your practice time, you want to aim for 80% effort on the stuff you need to be doing. That 80% includes scales, exercises and the pieces for your teacher. However, 20% of your time should always be for playing and singing the music that you love.

Music is a tough hobby to have as it requires hard work and commitment (if you want an easy ride, following a soap opera might be a better choice!). However, we all took music up for a reason. Whatever you enjoy most about music should be your 20% treat time. You might be studying for a classical piano exam, but you can still enjoy 20% of your time playing jazz improvisation. You might be working for a musical theatre concert, but really love singing a bit of Handel too. Make space for your guilty pleasures – it’ll help to keep you sane when things get tough and you feel worn out and hopeless.

That 20% might even be a cheeky day off practicing, but try not to skive off more than one day in five, or you’ll break your habit!


Practising regularly is hard work, and sometimes we just don’t want to, but if you can get these three key principles working for you, your practice times will feel like less of a chore and more of a pleasure!


Have you got any key principles you use to help you practice regularly and effectively? Let me know in the comments!


Planning Your Practice – Some Ideas

Practicing is the most challenging part of every musician’s life. Whether we’ve been playing six months or sixty years, we all face days when we just don’t want to sit down and work, or if we do, we don’t want to do what we should be doing. We face many competing demands on our lives too, so even when we want to practice, it’s important to make the best use of the time. As the mantra goes – quality is more important than quantity when it comes to practice.

So if you’re trying to get the most out of your practice time, it can really help to make a plan for what you’re going to do. Here are some of the ideas I’ve seen and tried for planning practice.

Have a routine for when you practice

Clock borderThis is pretty obvious, but if you put practice time into your schedule, you’re more likely to do it. I find after work is a good time – I go right to the piano before I turn on the TV. Other people find first thing in the morning works, or after dinner. Stick to the same slot every day, or at least the same routine of slots every week.

Advantage: You’re much less likely to put off practicing when it’s planned as part of your day.
Disadvantage: Another disruption to your routine can mean practice gets skipped out on.

Have a routine for what you do in your practice session

One of the things which can work wonders is to always go through the same routine when you practice. For singers, this should be a warm-up, vocalised exercises, and then full songs. I usually do my classical repertoire first, and then musical theatre work.  For instrumentalists, it might be that you play your scales first, or that you look at a piece and then play a scale before moving to the next one.

Routine is especially important if you need to practice skills like scales – whether you use a tick chart, a box with slips of paper in or an online random number generator, making some kind of rule about how you practice scales is the only way to make sure you cover all of the relevant materials. This might include studies or vocalised exercises for singers too.

Advantage: You know exactly where to start, so no lost time at the beginning.
Disadvantage: Can get dull and repetitive.

Circle the Date

Plan your practice for the week after your lesson

If you’re quite an organised person, it might work best for you to sit down after your lesson, look at what you need to do for next week and divide it up over the days you have available to practice. For example, you might look at Study A on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and Study B on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Perhaps you’ll focus on the A section from Wednesday to Saturday, and the B section from Sunday to Tuesday. Or maybe it’s Bb major on Monday, Eb major on Tuesday, Ab major on Wednesday and so on.

Try these two free printables for planning your practice over a week:

  • Horizontal Weekly Planner with goals – [purchase_link id=”1313″ style=”button” color=”inherit” text=”Purchase”]
  • Horizontal Weekly Planner without goals – [purchase_link id=”1312″ style=”button” color=”inherit” text=”Purchase”]


Advantage: Know you can get through everything you’ve been set and nothing will be forgotten.
Disadvantage: It might take more or less time to do things than you’ve allowed for.

Establish some goals for next lesson

Goal settingIf your teacher hasn’t set you a goal for next week, and you’re not keen on planning your week entirely, why not write three goals to achieve by the next lesson, and put them on your music stand? Then you know exactly what you need to work on when you come to practice.

Advantage: Keeps you focussed on what you’re doing.
Disadvantage: Your goals might not be what your teacher expects them to be!

Make a list of objective tasks to check off this week

Chances are your notes from your teacher are a bit random, vague and possibly even scruffy. When you get home, why not turn your teacher’s notes into a neat list. You could even try my free printable ([purchase_link id=”1314″ style=”button” color=”inherit” text=”Purchase”]) which gives you space to plan three tasks for each piece, and then a second side to note down which ones you’ve achieved.

Advantage: Having a list gives you small tasks, and a sense of achievement for doing them.
Disadvantage: It’s not always easy to create small, objective tasks for instructions like “play with more character”.

Write down some goals/tasks at the start of your practice session

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Keep a notebook by your music stand and use it to write down three things to accomplish each day before you start practicing to help you focus. You could also do this at the end of each session – writing three goals for tomorrow.

Advantage: Flexible to take account of what you achieve each day in your practice.
Disadvantage: Doesn’t necessarily take into account any set homework for the week, and uses up a few minutes of practice time each day.

Keep a record of what you’ve done and when

There’s nothing like record keeping to help you realise what’s really going on with your practice. Keeping a practice journal can be really helpful, as it allows you to make notes on what was hard today, or any questions you might have for your teacher. It’s also helpful to keep a note of the times you’re practicing from time to time, and note how effective your practice is. You can grab my practice audit printable here, and try it yourself: [purchase_link id=”1302″ style=”button” color=”inherit” text=”Purchase”]

Advantage: Gives you a really good picture of what you’re doing
Disadvantage: Doesn’t directly improve the quality of your practice at all!

So, those are my tips for planning your practice. Do you have any planning methods that work for you? If you’ve tried any of these, how did they work for you?

What’s the Point of My Practice Book?

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For every musician, practice is a problem. No matter how we write about it, talk about it or think about it, the only solution to the problem is to do it. However, there are lots of useful things that can help you get over that barrier that tries to prevent us from starting in the first place.

Today, I want to talk about practice books. Every teacher I’ve had has used some system to make notes on what to practice for me. Sometimes, it’s been books. Sometimes it’s been bits of paper. I know some teachers who print their own forms to put into binders, and others who just write in pencil on the music. My system is to use a copy book. I write the notes in the lesson and give the top copy to my student to put in the front of their binder, then I type up the notes from the copy into Music Teacher’s Helper and email them a copy as well.

However, the question remains. What’s the point of this?

For me, some of the point is to help me remember what I’ve taught my students. I only teach part time just now, so my other job can zap all the details of lessons out of my brain. Full time teachers will have lots of their students confusing their brains. A practice record helps us to build from one lesson to the next in an organised fashion.

What about for you, though? What’s the point of the practice book for you? Ultimately, your practice book contains what you need to focus on this week and usually some way of recording what you did.

Practice books help you focus on what you need to work on right now.

Practice books need to be seen to be used. They are useless if they’re left in your music folder/rucksack/pocket/teacher’s house over the week. Instead, when you get home from your lesson, why not put your practice book on your music stand open on the last lesson? Putting your book in a visible place that you’ll see when you come to practice means you’re immediately working on the key things you covered in your last lesson. It means you’ll know you’re supposed to be doing Bb major not B minor, so when your teacher asks you to play it next lesson, you’ll be able to.  I’m always forgetting the studies my piano teacher sets me, so leaving my practice book open reminds me to play a couple each day.

Practice books help break down long pieces into smaller chunks.

Remember that bar you stumbled on in the lesson? Or maybe not? Your practice book will probably say things like “focus on high notes at the end of the verse” or “smooth out register changes in chorus”. These give you smaller chunks to focus on that will mean you learn your songs faster and more accurately.

It can be really tempting to just start at the beginning of a song, sing it to the end and never really focus on the parts which are causing you problems. This is even more of a temptation for singers compared to instrumentalists as we are masters of “keeping going”. We usually work with a piano accompaniment which means we can’t stop, so we fudge over the weak parts and make it work. This often means we learn to sing things wrong, which is much harder to sort out than fixing mistakes when they first happen.

Breaking down songs into smaller chunks and working on specific passages or skills means harder work in the short term, but much greater reward in the long term.

Practice books help you see what you’ve achieved

Sheet music curled edges

Have you ever flipped back through your practice book? Simply looking back through the notes can help you realise just how far you’ve come. If you fill in the check boxes in some of the printed ones, you can see a visual record of how much practice you’ve done too. All of us hit plateau points in our art, and sometimes we need to realise that we’ve come a very long way and achieved an awful lot. Practice books are one of the most obvious records of what we’ve done. Why not pick up a song you were learning three, six or twelve months ago and sing it again? It will almost certainly come back to you and be better than it ever was before.

Your practice book is a record of all the repertoire you’ve learned and worked on too. I tried to make a list once of all the songs I could call “repertoire” (I could polish them for a performance in less than two weeks). It’s a pretty long list these days.

Don’t have a practice book? Ask your teacher for one, or just buy a cheap notebook from the supermarket and bring it to lessons. If your teacher doesn’t write in it, use it to make notes on what you’re supposed to be practicing during the lesson.

And, don’t forget to put it out where you can see it when you get home!