May 8, 2018

Practice Strategies

Practicing is not the key to becoming better at something. Motivation that drives perseverance during practice is the key to become better at something. If a student is motivated to become better, then they will seek out strategies to become better. Unfortunately, often times, we need someone or some resource to help us learn these effective strategies.

nelsonviolin - CopyStudents encounter many challenges in various music for which the hard work comes in employing various strategies to learn the part. It isn’t good enough to simply practice by running through a piece of music. Students must use a combination of many strategies for each challenge that they encounter.


Practice without your Instrument

It seems counter-intuitive to practice without your instrument, but there is a lot of things to analyze in any given piece of music before a performer can hope to play something correctly. When practicing without your instrument you are analyzing the various challenging parts in the music.

  1. Identify challenging sections. What is difficult about them?
    • You may want to identify challenging sections in preparation for Chunking.
  2. Figure out how to do it. You aren’t actually doing it, you are just figuring out how you will do it later when you have your instrument.
  3. Annotate something / anything that will help you remember what you already figured out in #2 for the next time you practice – so you don’t have to figure it out again.
  4. Pretend you are playing your instrument. Isolate rhythms, fingerings, bowing, etc.
    • Science has shown that imagining doing something actually helps doing that something.


In order to be able to do something well, your brain needs you to repeat it over and over. Your brain is actually growing myelin that insulate many, many neural pathways that connect neurons. If you don’t repeat it over and over, you have a greater chance of not performing something the way you intend.

Fix it First (Before Repeating)

Of course, there is a danger in repeating something so many times that you get good at it. Be careful that you are not repeating the wrong way many times, because you will actually get good at doing something wrong. So be sure to analyze whatever is giving you trouble, assess your own performance, work to fix it, then repeat it many times to build up myelin in your brain.


Chunking is perhaps one of the most universal and effective way of practicing. We never have enough time in our busy days to schedule practice, so we should strive to get the most out of practice.

Chunking is a logical breaking down of musical passages/phrases into smaller “chunks” that a student focuses on for an extended period of practice time.

  1. Don’t repeat parts that are easy for you. Don’t play through the whole song unless you are working on Big Picture elements.
  2. Divide a challenging section into smaller chunks that make sense logically. You should make them into the smallest chunks possible that still make sense musically.
  3. Practice without your Instrument with the goal being that you figure how how to play that one small chunk perfectly.
  4. Attempt to play the chunk correctly. You probably won’t play it correctly the first, second, or thirteenth time. You will need to assess your playing each time and work to fix what you notice you can do better.
    • When working through a chunk, also include the first note of the following chunk. 
    • Half Memorize the Music. Quickly get away from looking at the music so you can focus on your playing.
    • You might try the chunk slower than the composer’s tempo, but you should quickly get back to playing the chunk at tempo. If you keep repeating the chunk slowly, you will get good at playing it slowly, not the composer’s written tempo.
  5. Repeat #4 with the next chunk in the challenging section and so on. You may have many chunks to work through. You might even notice that some of the chunks are the same as other chunks!
  6. Double Chunking. Once you have run through all small chunks, work through two chunks combined. Work through chunk 1 & 2, then chunk 2 & 3, then chunk 3 & 4, etc. the key being that you are now practicing being able to play each chunk in succession.
    • When working through two chunks, also include the first note of the third chunk. Basically, always include the following first note. 
  7. Triple, Quadruple, etc. Chunking. Now put 3, 4, etc. chunks together.
  8. Once you have worked through each chunk separately and also practiced playing each chunk in succession you should repeat the whole passage over an over.
    • You will probably mess up on a few of the chunks while repeating the whole passage.
  9. Repeat #3 – 7 for the chunks that are still giving you trouble.
  10. Once you have worked through the tough chunks again, play the whole thing. Repeat #9-10, if needed.
  11. Do this all again at your next practice session. If you do it well, next time you will spend less time on those chunks and passages.

Half-Memorize the Music

Half-Memorizing should come automatically if/when a student practices effectively and regularly. When a student half-memorizes the music, the sheet music is no longer relied on for details, but instead is a reminder of what was previously practiced (Analyzed without your Instrument, Chunked, Big Pictured, etc.).

Sheet music acts as a means to enter previously practiced chunks into your short term memory over and over during the course of performance. The details in the sheet music are not meant to be read when performing. If a performer is reading every detail in the sheet music when performing they haven’t practiced enough to half-memorize the music.

Also, half-memorizing the music leads to seeing the details of sheet music in chunks. No longer does a student look at every single note of a sixteenth note run, but instead they look at the whole run (a collection of chunks) as one musical idea to be executed.

Big Picture

First, let’s be clear, playing through a piece is not Big Picture practice. Students like to play through a piece from beginning to end and call it “practice”. Unfortunately (fortunately), music educators disagree. When a student plays a piece from beginning to end, it is more like a performance with no one listening – likely the student isn’t even listening to their own performance either. If they were listening, they would move on to Chunking or some other effective practice strategy.

  1. Big Picture practice includes putting strings of Chunks together, asking yourself over and over, “what did the composer intend?”
  2. Somewhere in there, the student should probably Practice without their Instrument to analyze the musical form (wikipedia link). Ask yourself, “how does the composer vary each section?”
  3. Put together series of sections of the musical form. Take the audience on a journey by exaggerating and making the musical details obvious.

Big Picture practice also includes doing some research through Using Resources. You probably don’t need your instrument for a portion of Big Picture practice. Big Picture practice may include:

  • Researching the composer and any other relevant historical events.
  • Listening to professionals perform the piece.
  • Research any musical terms you do not know. If you know the term, you should research it anyway. Find the definition as well as find a literal translation. For example, did you know the literal translation of piano is plane, as in the flat baseline?

Use Resources

We live in an age of technological enlightenment! There are countless resources at your fingertips. If you don’t know how to do something, Google/Siri it.

Consult a book. There are countless books in the orchestra room for your use. Also, libraries are pretty cool too. They may even have books and articles online.

Ask a peer. We are a community of helpers that care about the quality of our orchestra.

Ask Mr. Broach. He knows stuff.

Write the composer an email. Unfortunately, much of the music we perform is written by composers that have long passed. Though, I bet they wrote something about whatever it is you are wanting ask. In that case, find that book.