Ten Essential Principles of Productive Practice


Practice is the key to progress, but without effective tactics, you’re liable to get nowhere fast and give up in frustation. Here are ten red-hot tips for enhancing your practice sessions and making sure you get the most out of your precious practice time!

1 – “Break it up!” – the undeniable utility of “Small-Chunking”

Here’s an effective method for mastering challenging pieces of music:

  • Practice bars 1 & 2 separately, then join them together
  • Then practice bars 3 & 4 separately, then join them together
  • Join bars 1-4 together and practice them together

Repeat through the rest of the piece.

2 – “Practice the hard bits!”

for instance, the point at which chords change, or a position shift

Isolate that segment and play it in a loop repeatedly (at least 10 times)

A favourite practice game of mine is “the 5-repeats game”. Simply challenge yourself to perform 5 perfect repetitions of a section before you move on. Each time you perform one, increase the count by 1. If you mess up, go back to 0 and start again….

3 – “Focus on mastering one section before you move on”


for example, on piano you might practice each hand separately until you are confident, then put the hands together

on guitar, you master difficult left hand fingering and difficult right hand picking seperately – practice the left hand with simple picking, practice the right hand with simple fingering…and when you’ve mastered both, combine them

4 – “Don’t practice your mistakes!”


When you start learning a new piece of music, go slow and make sure you’re getting it right. If you rush and start playing it wrong, your body is going to faithfully remember what you’ve done and you’ll end up having to work twice as hard to re-learn it correctly!

5 – “Your mind is a tranquil river…”


There’s a tendency to get excited and tense when you’re practicing hard, so remind yourself to keep breathing steadily, take your mind to a calm place and get into the zone. Often times, repetition of a passage can have a hypnotic effect – once you get in the groove, you’ll find everything much easier!

6 – “Feel the burn!” – the Power of Progressive Overload

When an exercise gets too easy, make it harder in one of the following ways:

  • increase the tempo (practice with a metronome or drum machine)
  • add the other hand (if you hadn’t already)
  • extend the range of the exercise (2,3,4 or more octaves)
  • transpose the exercise into different keys
  • use different chord types or scales
  • change the rhythm or time signature

The possibilities are limitless!

7 – “A little a lot is better than a lot a little..”

daily practice for half an hour a day adds up as steady progress – keeping a practice diary can be edifying!

8 – “Practice away from your instrument”


There’s a lot of practice you can do when you don’t have your instrument in hand. For instance:

  • trying to figure out the chord progression, structure, rhythm, of a piece of music you’re listening to
  • tapping out rhythms or fingering patterns on a surface
  • reciting the cycle of fifths to yourself (in both directions!)
  • humming bits of music or reciting lyrics for songs you’re learning
  • strongly visualising yourself playing a bit of music, in time
  • This last one is a pro-tip for musicians on tour – you would be surpised how much practice you can do in your head if you put your mind to it, so make the most of your odd minutes because it all adds up!

    8 – “Work on your sight-reading but aim to memorise everything!”


    I know, I’m cheating a bit here by combining two bits of advice, but they are related!

    To improve your sightreading, read a new, but technically easy piece, every  day – play it a couple of times and let it go before you start to memorise it.

    When you’re learning music you want to play well, always aim to memorise it. This serves a few purposes – firstly, it ensure that you’ve practiced everything enough and really started to understand it. Secondly, it allows you to concentrate more on the other aspects of performance such as dynamics and feel.

    10 – “All work and no play makes Jack (and/or Jill) a dull boy(and/or girl)!”


    After all the hard work practicing, it’s good to cut loose and just do whatever you feel like. This is             a good opportunity to explore new ideas, play with new concepts, improvise, learn a new piece…

    And there you have it…ten top tactics to help you focus your practice time and achieve your goals quicker!

    Have fun!


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