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Riley Music Academy Music Cast: Practice makes perfect – 7 Tips to Maximise your music practice

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Practice makes Perfect – 7 Tips to Maximise your music practice

If you believe Michael Gladwell’s rule, it will take you 10’000 hours to master your chosen instrument!  That’s pretty daunting to someone just starting out and one of the reasons why a lot of people use age as an excuse.  I think there is an element of truth in this claim but it depends on your end goal.  Mastery is subjective and contains many different facets.  Are you going to play your instrument at your local village talent contest or play at the Albert Hall?  For many, the goal is to become rich and famous, have a private jet and a bowl full of brown M&M’s in the green room.  I am definitely not one to quash those dreams as its hugely important to dream BIG (although I think the private jet thing finished a few decades ago)!  Having said that, the average person asking me about learning music has more modest goals.  Many want to play for fun and perhaps perform ‘Baker Street’ to their friends or hammer out a few carols round the piano at Christmas.  For this I don’t believe 10’000 hours necessary and I work hard with my students to get to where they want to be in as short a time possible but without leaving glaring holes in their knowledge or technique.

So…what should you practice and for how long?  This is a classic question and the simple answer is…. it depends!

*I wonder if I just stopped this blog there whether people would comment more?*

Don’t worry, Im not going to stop there.  Im going to give you a couple of tips to implement straight away.  Then, if you wish, you can ask me to design a tailored practice routine.  This is very similar to having a life coach or a personal trainer; sometimes you just want to be told what to do, stick to it and see the results.

Tip #1 – Instrument Stands

If you have a special cupboard for your instrument and it is neatly stacked out of sight, what makes you think of it to practice?  I often suggest that people can buy an instrument stand and leave it safely in view all the time.  Not only does it look cool, but when you walk past it to make a drink, you can have a quick blast.  Snatching 5-10mins several times a day is a great way of focusing and reinforcing techniques.

Tip #2 – Pomodoro Method

Taken from the Italian kitchen timers, this method studies the principle of focus and retainment.  If you try to study for longer than 25 mins then you will inevitably lose focus and waste time.  To make your sessions as efficient as possible try to break them up into short, manageable chunks.

Tip #3 – Work hard

Im sure everyone can think of that one thing they need to work harder on.  It’s something that takes the most amount of effort and motivation.  It’s hard, it’s perhaps boring, it fills you with dread and yet it gives you amazing results.  Find what that element is and absolutely crush it!  Do it now!

Tip #4 – Use a timer

If I need to work on something difficult I often set myself the challenge of working on it for a specified amount of time.  ”I’m going to play this pig of a phrase for 5 mins” – at the end of the 5 mins my timer goes off and I just leave it.  I don’t try to finish it, I just drop it and move on to something else…usually Tip #5.

Tip #5 – Reward

Working hard is (erm…) ‘hard’!  It takes a lot of motivation and for long term state of mind it is good to offer yourself a reward.  This could be a break, a lie down, a beer, random noodling or just playing that piece you mastered to convince yourself that you can play music after all!

Tip #6 – Personal space

Some people are lucky enough to have their own fully insulated practice studio with coffee machine and comfy sofas.  For most, its a space in your house with kids running around, a dog howling, neighbours complaining and loved ones trying to watch TV and asking you to keep it down.  It’s important to find a time and a space from which you can shut out the world and concentrate.  It’s ‘you’ time.  This is important for concentration obviously but also for the ego.  Many will only play their fancy repertoire because they want to impress the neighbours.  You will not progress quickly if you are regurgitating the same old pieces time after time.  On occasion I have taken my sax and played it in the car whilst parked in a lay-by.  I’ve even played in the middle of field with a flock of sheep bleating harmonies!

Tip #7 – Sound Terrible

This is similar to tips #3 and #6.  Don’t be afraid to work on something which sounds really bad.  The sort of thing that makes people think “Sally’s been playing for 5 years now; I would have thought she would sound better than this”!  If you are struggling through something which is incredibly hard and it reduces you to one note every 30 seconds or makes you squeak or curse then it’s probably doing you a lot of good!  That’s not to say you aren’t trying to make it sound good – don’t sabotage your playing on purpose – try to play as nice as possible but if it’s hard then all the pretty elements will go out of the window!

There you go…7 tips on music practice.  If you would like to take me up on my offer of designing a practice routine for you then please leave a comment below with the following information:

Your name:
Your goal:
Key areas of focus:
Amount of time you can dedicate:

Disclaimer – By leaving a comment you will receive a tailored plan from professional musician and educator Jay Riley.  It is designed to maximise your practice and achieve your goals.  Help me to help you by leaving as much relevant information a possible.  This offer will be available free of charge for a limited time from the original #RMAMusiccast blog post date as determined by Riley Music Academy.  Your email address will be used to receive the free programme and RMA will also send you updates and future blog posts.  You can unsubscribe at any time.

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11 Comments Add a Comment
  1. Andrew Gibbs
    November 5, 2015

    Hi Jay
    Just a follower at the moment so v kind of you to offer any help at all
    Your name:andrew gibbs
    Instrument:Upright bass two years of intermitant practice and lessons
    Your goal:play with people better than me in a jazz setting, but not spoiling it for others
    Key areas of focus: What not? itntuitive scale playing and therefore recognition of scales by ear. I can sing good basslines so would like to translate that to the strings.
    Amount of time you can dedicate: 45min three or four times a week perhaps a bit more if I felt I was moving forward.

    Many thanks

    • Jay
      November 9, 2015

      Thanks Andrew. Practice guide on its way to you now.

  2. Dionne
    November 9, 2015

    Instrument:Tenor Sax
    Your goal: To solo like a pro
    Key areas of focus: Interesting solos for funk band. Solid high notes (tuning) and altissimo.
    Amount of time you can dedicate: 30 mins 5 times a week.
    Cheers Boss.

    • Jay
      November 11, 2015

      Just sent this to you. Hope it helps.

      • Dionne
        November 12, 2015

        Thanks Jay, your reply is really detailed and helpful – great to have a routine set out on paper so no excuses. I’m certain it will help me. Cheers.

  3. Gordon
    November 12, 2015

    Instrument: Tenor Sax
    Your goal: Answer this question more easily? :) Probably similar to Dionne; focus is on improvising, ideally like Cannonball Adderley!
    Key areas of focus: Play really “well in the swing” in pieces like Milestones, Justine, Joshua, Impressions which demand swung quavers at 200-150 bpm. I’m not sure if I’m tounging, or even if I should be at that speed.
    Amount of time you can dedicate: 15 mins-1 hour, 3-6 days per week

    Many thanks


    • Jay
      November 14, 2015

      Just sent a PDF to you Gordon. Hope it helps. All the best. Jay

  4. Christine
    November 13, 2015

    Instrument Alto Sax
    My goal – be a versatile band/orchestral/jazz player
    key areas of focus – tone and tuning
    amount of time – a lot
    Thank you

    • Jay
      November 14, 2015

      On its way to you Christine. Hope it helps.

  5. Gordon
    November 17, 2015

    Hi Jay

    Many thanks for the practice schedule you sent me. There are definitely things I neglect in practice and will build in (transposing, long notes etc)

    BTW… What does practicing with just the mouthpiece do? What does overtone practice do?

    Your “10 steps” guide was also very useful. I still can’t read music… another to-do!

    Thanks for all the help!


    • Jay
      November 19, 2015

      Hi Gordon.

      Mouthpiece only is great for expanding embouchure and working on tone. It helps to understand how the air is channeled through the mouthpiece to create different frequencies. This will lead to easier low notes, fuller mid range and clearer/more in tune high notes. Overtones is a great way to develop tone as it explores the frequencies within each note. The more overtones you get, the better you will sound (in basic terms!) I did a short playalong video here

      I have plenty of tips on my membership site so look out for that when it opens up again or feel free to ask any other questions.


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