How to practice, in six steps

October 21, 2011, 11:05 AM ·

"I think I forgot how to practice," said my student.

Well, I guess it's better than forgetting TO practice, but this is a problem that needs addressing. In fact, I'm finding that as my students get older, I need to take time to talk about practice strategies in a different way than I did when they were younger. Sure, I can identify their problem areas, but they need to start learning to do so on their own, and it isn't always obvious how to go about it. So let's say you are working on this week's etude, or a page of your concerto, or your orchestra music; here is a basic plan:

1. Identify difficult spots

This seems obvious, but due to a common affliction known as "denial," students often fail to effectively find their own trouble spots. Muddling your way through a page of music, fixing this and fumbling that as you go, is not the same as playing a page of music correctly. But sometimes we don't "count" the fixing and fumbling.

Recently I used an iPhone to videotape a student playing through her weekly etude, which she thought was fairly well prepared. After I taped her etude from start to finish, I set her in front of her music with a pencil and told her to circle any notes, measures or passages that she wanted to fix. I placed the phone on the music stand, hit "play," then sat in my chair while she listened to herself and circled passages. At the end, I asked, "Did you have more mistakes, or less mistakes, then you thought you had?"

"I definitely had more!"

I was not surprised; I suspected that she had not been hearing her mistakes. This is understandable; sometimes the concentration on playing makes it hard to step outside and hear what's actually happening. So recording yourself and listening, pencil in hand, is one way to find those areas needing help.

Another way is to simply be very aware of when you are stopping, when you are fumbling, when you are playing out of tune. You can circle such spots as you go along.

2. Take each spot and identify the difficulty.

One of my students found a spot that needed practice, and I asked, "So, what happened here?"

"I missed the note!" she said, and we laughed. Well, yes! But why?

Often times we write off "missed notes" as one-time events that just happened because our fingers stumbled. But usually those "one-time" events happen every time you play it, believe it or not. And they happen for a reason. Finding that reason is the key to effective practice.

Here are some commons reasons why we make mistakes: missing the mark on a difficult string crossing; misreading the music ("I always think that G is a B…"); shifting too far; shifting not far enough; fingers stumbling on a difficult finger pattern; mis-placing fingers too high or too low; misunderstanding the rhythm; anticipating a shift and moving before you should; anticipating a string crossing and moving before you should; being in the wrong part of the bow; running out of bow; mistaking two similar passages for each other; etc. It's a fairly endless list! But your job is to find the exact reason why you stumbled.

3. Learn to play the spot correctly

This may take several attempts and strategies, but it is important that you conquer your problem before you simply start "practicing," or repeating the passage. If you play something over and over again incorrectly, or with stumbles, or with playing the wrong note first and sliding around to the right note, then you are practicing exactly that: playing it incorrectly and stumbling around. When you go to play it for your performance or for your teacher, you will inevitably land incorrectly and stumble around, exactly as you practiced. Then you'll say, "But I played it right at home…" Grrrrr!

Let's say you had a problem shifting: you need to practice the shift until it's correct. If it was a problem with getting the fingers to go down correctly, you need to identify which fingers were out of place and slow it down until you can do it all in a row correctly, then maybe even practice some rhythms. If it was a bowing problem, you need to practice getting to the right part of the bow, maybe even changing a bowing. If it was a reading problem, you may need to write in a fingering or note or sharp or flat, to remind yourself.

Whatever it is, get fully to the bottom of the problem and fix it.

4. Repeat the spot CORRECTLY, numerous times.

Experience will tell you how many times to repeat something in order to learn it, but usually 10 times works well. You have to be very honest about this: if you did not play the passage correctly, you can't count it as a repetition. If you continue to make mistakes, then you have not fixed the problem and you need to go back to Step 3. Only correct practice yields progress. It can be slow, it can have a few pauses, but it has to be correct.

5. Put the corrected spot into context of the piece.

Back up to a few measures before the trouble spot, then see if you can still play it correctly within the context of the rest of the music. Try going from the beginning of the page, or the beginning of the piece, to see if you can still remember and perform your perfected spot, within the music.

6. Do it again tomorrow.

Usually one day won't completely fix a problem, though it will go pretty far. Make sure you continue to hit those special spots.

Obviously, there are many ways to go about correcting problems that you are having in learning music, especially when it comes to Step 3. But I hope this helps break down the practice process for yourself or for your students. Happy practicing!



October 21, 2011 at 09:39 PM ·


October 21, 2011 at 11:28 PM ·

 It happens to us "old folks" as well.  My lessons these day focus more on practice strategies than anything else.  It is an art in and of itself.

October 22, 2011 at 12:29 AM ·

I love this!! I'm going to print it out and tape it to my music stand. Thank you so much!!!!!!

October 22, 2011 at 12:43 AM ·

 Thank you.  Your blog came at an excellent time.  :)

October 22, 2011 at 07:57 AM ·

haha I always mark the trouble spots but I never work them out... LOL because I try and try but I never start well from that spots. It's like I just can play the etude from the beginning, sometimes I am not even paying attention to the music sheet and my fingers keep going but If I stop and re-start from where I stopped BUM I am just lost even with the music sheet in front of me.

a bit off-topic but I noticed everytime I am playing C in frist position and then I have a B in third position my hand just go automatically to the C...

btw great blog! Thanks!

October 22, 2011 at 09:47 AM ·

When my daughter was learning the piano I got her to slowly practice the bar 6 times if it needed correcting. It seemed to cure most faults that way. She could play Honky Tonk Train Blues very well after that. I wish there was a violin version of that piece.

October 22, 2011 at 12:58 PM ·

Excellent strategies.

October 22, 2011 at 03:49 PM ·

Thanks, Laurie!  I'm currently working on a piece (Brahms' "Hungarian Dance #5") that's been crying out for your method!!

October 23, 2011 at 05:20 AM ·

 Very succinct and well thought out. I definitely needed to be reminded to identify the difficulty, rather than just focus on the fact a mistake was made.

In The Art of Possibility by Benjamin and Rosamund Stone Zander, one suggestion B. Zander gives his students at NEC is to throw their hands up in the air every time they make a mistake and say "how fascinating!!!", which I think prompts the same thought process.

I also have been working on my concept of phrases and sound away from my violin, which I have found in the last few years to be extremely important and scary at the same time. My teachers for my first fourteen years of playing were very focused on detail work....very important, but lacking the personal touch of understanding the structure of the music and determining my own sound. What I lack in formal training I definitely make up for in enthusiasm now, but I would highly recommend encouraging students at any age to take some matter of interpretation/understanding the structure into their own hands as well.

October 23, 2011 at 08:04 PM ·

Your analysis is very good, Laurie.  I often find that my students make mistakes that they wouldn't if they were listening to themselves.  They concentrate so hard on playing the piece that they don't listen.  I don't know whether I would go as far as taping the student.  I would need to do it diplomatically, without making the student feel that I was unleashing a watchdog to bite him.

Once while I was working out in the gym, I was in one corner of the room, and a trainer was teaching a complicated routine to a student in the middle of the room.  After they worked for a while, the trainer said, "That's it!  You were great!  Do it once more and I'll photograph you."  I thought that this was a great way of giving positive feedback. 

October 24, 2011 at 06:03 AM ·

A lot of good points from Lauries blog and the following comments.

I think one person mentioned learning the notes away from the instrument - and connected to that I would target ear training.

Unless you have the note and the pitch in your inner ear before you play it, you will find it hard to play the note and/or be in tune.

October 24, 2011 at 11:44 AM · Thank you. Very encouraging.

October 24, 2011 at 04:37 PM ·

Thank you! The proof is in the pudding! I am looking forward to giving this a try! I'll be tutoring a friend of mine's daughter soon. I'm eager to see how it works for her! :)

October 25, 2011 at 10:59 AM ·

I like the idea of recording a student at the lesson. Technology surely makes that easy these days. When a student regularly uses the, "I played it right at home", I say I believe them and suggest they record for me & bring that in. They never do ;) 

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