5 Tips to Boost Your Music Practice

Practice is the process by which you try to improve your performance on the execution of some task, through its continued repetition. In music practice, it is important to know what your current shortcomings are, so that you can work efficiently on addressing them. In this article we will present you with five tips that may help you overcome some common difficulties.

The first tip will make it easier to remember entire songs by reducing the amount of information that you need to memorize. The following two tips will draw your attention to a few details that can easily pass under the radar when you’re too concentrated on learning the notes of a song. The fourth tip has been suggested by classical musicians for more than one century, and is very useful to let you overcome speed plateaus when practicing challenging songs. The final tip aims to improve your understanding of the harmony of a song, giving you the flexibility to play in any key, a skill which is very useful in a band context.

1. Memorize patterns instead of individual notes

There’s a limit to how many different pieces of information you can hold at once in your working memory. For that reason, when you’re dealing with a passage that contains a lot of notes, it pays off to analyse it and see if it’s made up of patterns (scales, chords, arpeggios) which you already know.

Below is an excerpt from Beethoven’s Pathétique Piano Sonata, in C minor. When trying to learn the outlined passage, you could practice and memorize all nineteen notes individually. But it becomes a lot more manageable once you recognize that it’s just a C minor scale followed by a D diminished arpeggio. For the scale, simply memorize the extremities and where it changes direction (i.e. G5 Bb5 Eb4).

Of course, the prerequisite to use this technique is to have been diligent in the study of the fundamentals. It is worth taking the time to learn all major and minor scales, as well as all common types of chords (especially the triads – major, minor, augmented and diminished), in every key.

2. Treat rests as first-class citizens

It is easy to commit the mistake of only looking at the notes in a piece of music, and treating all the rests as some sort of notational artefact, existing only to fill up the remaining spaces. However, rests are there to convey an important piece of information – they tell you when you should release the previous notes. Very often, these gaps are intended by the composer, and contribute a lot to the feel of the song.

For instance, consider the rests outlined below, from the Bach-Busoni Chaconne in D Minor. The chords in the left hand, more than just providing an harmonic context for the melody in the right hand, are also forming a melody of their own, and the rests make this second melody feel a lot more deliberate and precise.

Sometimes, the rests are not explicitly notated, and require more attention to be understood. In the example below, from the same song, there are two notes being played simultaneously, but notice how only the top one has a dot. This means, that after ½ of a beat has passed, the bottom note should be released and give place to silence, while the top note remains singing, thus reinforcing itself as the melody. Like it’s been said, God is in the details.

3. Practice staccato and legato with well-defined durations

Staccato (cutting notes short) and legato (blending successive notes), both depicted below, are two common and useful types of articulations worth getting under your belt.

If you’re not familiar with executing these techniques, it might be useful to start practicing them with well-defined durations for when to release the notes (example in the figure).

  • For staccato, practice releasing the notes when half of the note value has been reached. On guitar, you’ll need to use your fingers or palm to mute the notes earlier.
  • For legato, on piano, practice releasing the notes only when the note value has been exceeded by half of its value, with a clear overlap over the following note. On guitar, learn how to play the notes using hammer-ons and pull-offs.

With time, you’ll get used to relaxing these restrictions and playing the articulations more organically depending on the situation.

4. Improve your speed by practicing with rhythm variations

If you’re practicing a challenging song with a long stream of fast notes (such as the Chopin Étude below) and you just can’t seem to be able to get it up to speed, there is a practice technique that can make a big difference in your ability progress.

The main idea is that, instead of trying to play this constant barrage of 16th notes at a high speed, you will instead take each group of four notes and swap the rhythm with one of the variations below. Then play it at a tempo that you feel comfortable with.

What these variations achieve, is that they interchange very fast notes, with slower notes that give your brain some time to regroup. You’ll notice that it’s a lot easier to play those fast notes when you have a place to rest for a moment soon afterwards!

By practicing the song with each variation, increasing the ratio of fast to slow notes, and progressively extending the patterns to encompass larger groups of notes (e.g. groups of 8 or 16 instead of 4), you will eventually get used to handling longer speed bursts, until you can play all straight 16th notes at full speed.

5. Generalize the harmony and apply to every key

This one is particularly useful when learning Jazz pieces, or any songs that will involve improvisation, because it gives you a much better understanding of the underlying harmony. Consider the excerpt below, from the song Blue Bossa.

Each of the chords has been rewritten using Roman numerals instead of specific note names, where each of these numbers represent the interval formed between the root of that chord, and the root of the key we are playing in (e.g. if you are playing in C, then a F would be denoted as IV since it’s one perfect fourth above the C).

For most of the song, the chords were rewritten relative to the C minor scale. The third line, however, is a bit tricky, because suddenly none of the chords seem to match with the scale. In fact, there was temporary tonal change from C minor to Db major, so we start treating Db as the root for a moment, before reverting to C minor on the fourth line.

Armed with this knowledge, it’s a lot easier to play this song in another key. For instance, imagine we wanted to play this song in A minor:

  • We’d start in A minor, play a simple I-IV-II-V-I.
  • Then for the third line we’d change our mindset to the Bb major scale (because Bb major is to A minor, what Db major is to C minor), and play a II-V-I.
  • Finally, switching back to A minor, we’d end it with another II-V-I.

With enough practice, this kind of thought process can come almost automatically, and you’ll be able to play any song in any key. This technique can also be useful to analyse melodies, especially when you want to learn a reusable phrase, like a blues lick, so that you can put it to use in any song. You only need to learn the phrase in terms of its intervals, rather than its notes.


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