How to Practice a Musical Instrument

This is a tutorial on how to practice a musical instrument, written by a proven musician. This is for those who want to get good at their instrument quick, and those who know the basics of their instrument.

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There's no easy way to start this, but I'll start with this statement-

If you practice hours a day but still don't get better each day, noticeably, you're practicing wrong.

(If that offended you, I suggest pressing the "Back" button now)

There IS a way to practice and get better fast. It is different for each person yes, but if you put in hours a day and don't feel yourself getting any better, you're doing something wrong.

Here's how to know if you've come to the right place-

Do you know how to read tab/sheet music?
Do you know the basics of your instrument?
Do you know how to play a scale?
Do you know how to count rhythms?

If you answered no to more than two of those questions, you should go learn how to do that before continuing, or use this technique to learn those skills.

Here's what you need to start being a musician:
  • Your Instrument
  • Yourself
  • A metronome and/or tuner
  • A brain
Notes and rhythms are THE most basic thing about music. If you can count "1-2-3-4," then you have a good start. There are downbeats and upbeats (If this is all review for you, you can skip until you find what you're looking for).

For example I'll call a downbeat the count that it is in the measure, (Too complicated yet?) and upbeats will be called "te" (pronounced "tay"). So in a 4/4 time measure filled with eighth notes, it will be counted "1-te-2-te-3-te-4-te" and you can end it with saying "1" at the end to start the next measure. That is the most basic I will get, so here comes the complex parts...

How to start your practice

Here is where you set up for your ENTIRE practice. If you mess this up, your entire time will be near wasted. What you need to do is find a place that is suitable to play your instrument to YOUR liking. If you have noise complaints, move somewhere else.

Find a place where you can focus. This means NO ELECTRONICS (unless you use them for MUSICAL PURPOSES). Put your phone in Airplane Mode and put it out of sight. Find a place to sit/stand and then hold your instrument and play any note. Did it sound like the pros? If it did, then you need to realise that you're here because you're NOT a pro, and you're here to BECOME a pro. No first note will sound perfect, but what you need to do is strive for perfection in EVERY single musical action you take. This will end up in frustration, yes, but when you finally get that riff or hit that one note, you will feel the GREATEST feeling of accomplishment.

After that note, hit another, any note of your choosing. Did it sound better? If it did, you're already making progress. If it didn't, you made progress anyways by noticing that you didn't sound the best you could. The best musician not only knows that they made a mistake, but corrects that mistake on the next try. Of course, you won't sound like Matthew Bellamy or Jimi Hendrix, BUT that day will come. Continue playing notes until you feel that you are ready to move on. Take as long as you'd like.

Getting into the practice session (Past Warm-Up)

Once you have finished your warm up, you should take out your tuner and tune your instrument. (You should know how to do this, if not, Google is your best friend) Now, once you have finished tuning, play a scale or an arpeggio on your instrument. It should sound WAY better than your first note of the day did. Play some fundamental exercises and remember to play with the best sound you can.

Practice performing

That means to practice as if you're on stage. Don't just play notes to play them, play them as if they're an art, because they are! You are a musician! You can do what most people in the world can't, playing music. Believe it or not, that first note, was in fact music.

After you're done playing some fundamentals, get out the music (or tab) that you wish to learn.

Set this goal: learn a SINGLE LINE of music. Yes, really. That's it. That is all. Learn a single, measly line. But don't forget, you also have the dynamics, shaping, phrasing, intonation, time, and overall musicianship to learn in that single line (Seems a bit harder now, huh?). Well, it isn't.

Learn ONE THING AT A TIME. If you can't play a riff, learn a single note of it. Then add the second, get that down, then add the third and master that. Then add the fourth and so on until you can play the riff like the pros did on their studio recording.

Now, the music you're looking at is another language than the one you're reading now. Music is a language. You have to learn it, and yes, it takes years to master. I still learn and I've played music since I was in 2nd grade. Now, after you've learned that line including all that I mentioned above, add the next line, and then the next.

Learn ONE THING AT A TIME. It may take a while, but that is music. If you aren't patient enough to take your time and learn one thing and then another, you should not be a musician.

That is how to practice right.
Yes, it's that simple.

In Summary:

  • Warm Up
  • Tune
  • Play Fundamentals
  • Learn your Music ONE THING AT A TIME
Once you have learned enough (HAVE A LIMIT), put your instrument down and look at the clock. It should have been anywhere from 30 minutes to about an hour and a half for you to learn a single line of music (If not that's OK, I work with college level musicians).

Practicing music and just playing notes to play them IS WRONG. There IS a wrong way to practice. Practice PERFORMING and you'll get better at your instrument and performance ready in months time. It won't be hard and you'll have more time on your hands as well.

Remember, above all, Practice Performing, one thing at a time.

~JD

2 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    guitar/bass95
    Only practicing performing is a great way to become a performer. It is not, however, the best way to become a musician. It's one thing to practice performance and a completely different thing to practice theory and composition. This was a good article, no doubt. I still think that the appropriate title would be "how to begin practicing a musical instrument". After you get advanced enough you might find that this method is very counter productive for your own musical goals, just as you might find that this is the perfect way for you to practice even after decades. Of course you shouldn't practice heaps of theory when you're a beginner. It might be incredibly boring for you. But I would still strongly suggest to start it at an early level. The method in this article is most likely very effective, but it's also a bit one sided.
    seanaisbell
    Damn glad I don't have to pay for this kind of condescension and smugness. Thanks UG for giving me douchey teachers for FREE!!