Practice What Matters Most

It would be nice if we could make music all day long. But life gets in the way: work, chores, social obligations, health issues. Shoot, sometimes we just need to relax on the couch with Netflix. So most of us have a limited amount of time to practice music each day.

The question is, how can we make the most of our practice time? 

A simple answer is to practice what matters most.

Focus your time and energy on the thing that needs work instead of rehashing things that are easy for you. Get feedback on your playing so you can make adjustments. This is called deliberate practice.


Let’s do it

So if you’re learning something, such as the break from Wagon Wheel, it’s a more productive use of your time to focus on one part of it until you see improvement. So perhaps you focus on the first phrase:

first phrase: D1-2-A0-1-1-2-2-3-[2-3-2]-2-1-[1-2-1]-[0-1-0]

But then you notice that you tend to stumble on the second bar, so you focus on that:

If you are able to get just the first phrase, then you’ve had a great small win. Even if it takes a few days, it’s more productive than stumbling through the whole tune, playing it poorly. I also find that it’s a lot more fun when something difficult starts to sound good.


The 80/20 Rule

There is a principle which states that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the results. Known as the Pareto Principle or the 80/20 Rule, it applies to business, botany, habits and just about anything in the universe.

  • 20% of your activity leads to 80% of your joy
  • 20% of the seeds lead to 80% of the fruits
  • Fixing 20% of the worst bugs in software eliminates 80% of crashes

Let’s apply this to learning music:

  • Spend 80% of your time practicing the most challenging 20% of what you’re learning
  • For a tune, spend 80% of your time on the challenging parts
  • For a practice session, spend 80% of your time working on new tunes and techniques you are learning
  • Spend the remaining 20% just fiddling around
  • For a tune spend 20% of your time just playing it through, fiddling with variations, etc.
  • For a practice session, spend 20% of your time warming up, reviewing older tunes, fiddling around

How to practice the hardest 20% of a tune

Practice chunking. Focus on trouble spots instead of running through a whole tune every time. Even if you think you know a tune, there’s probably something in there for you to work on.

Slow down. Once you identify a part that is challenging, slow it down. Once you figure out what you have to do, practice it slowly in a continuous loop. If you can do that, then try it with an external beat. Here’s a metronome track at 60 bpm:

If you can do that, then slowly speed it up until you can play it at the same speed as the rest of the tune. Try using the progressive metronome below.

For the record, I’ve been playing for a long time and still tend to speed up. I don’t quite no why. But when it happens, I start to notice that my body has tensed up. This is a signal that it’s time to slow down again.

Learn more in this post: I Can’t Fiddle Fast Enough!


Little pauses. When integrating chunks into the whole piece, pause slightly before you get there. Little pauses can be practiced in different ways

  • String crossing for bowing precision
  • Fingering
  • Between repetitions of an exercise

Of course, eventually you’ll want to remove that little pause so you can play the tune with flow from start to finish. But it’s a great tool for the intermediate stage of integrating different parts together.


Listen then play. Simply alternate between listening to small piece and then playing it. This is a form of call-and-response practice. This is easily done with play-along tracks, like the Wagon Wheel track above.


Audiate. Alternate between playing something and “hearing it in your head”. If this is hard, then alternate between playing and singing, or playing and humming. Why is this a good idea? Audiation is a way to internalize the music. If you can clearly hear how a melody should go, then playing it is just a matter of working out the technical aspects.


Get feedback. A simple way to get feedback is to record yourself playing a challenging piece. Listen back objectively, looking for what could be improved. Then practice it again. This is a crucial element of deliberate practice.

Another way to get feedback is to play with an external audio source: a play-along track, drone or metronome. For example, if you play something by yourself, you may not notice any mistakes. But if you play the same thing with the metronome, the metronome will appear to speed up and slow down (when it is you who are slowing down or speeding up). And so the metronome tells you that your speed is fluctuating. In the same way, a drone will tell you if you are out of tune. And play along track will give you feedback on both your timing and the tuning.


Fun and wandering

You might be thinking, “This sounds like work. I thought fiddling was supposed to be fun!”

I’m with you. I play music for enjoyment, not because I want to add it to a list of accomplishments. But if you really get into the work of practice, it starts to become intensely enjoyable.

All that said, there’s also a time for taking it easy. For fiddling around! I suggest you spend about 20% of your time allowing yourself to wander, explore or just play some tunes you’re really comfortable with.

When you start to practice, warm up with an easy tune and/or a simple scale. When you start to get frustrated with something super-difficult, switch gears to a playing a single note or an easy tune. This is a kind of active break. Though you’re still practicing, it has a relaxing and centering quality. It’s a form of kindness to your body and brain.

When it comes time to end a practice session, focus on getting a good sound. Play an easy tune or a simple scale. Maybe end where you begin, by playing an open string with your eyes closed along with a drone. Enjoy the sound. That way, when you set down your fiddle, you walk away with a positive feeling about the practice. This will spur you on to practice again tomorrow. I wrote more about this here: End on a High Note

OK! Now go fiddle with it…


Further learning

3 responses to “Practice What Matters Most

  1. Very relevant tips right now for me because I’m trying to optimize my practicing in all necessary areas, and related to that I have just discovered this app, amazing and useful for practicing intonation.

    Intonia.com

    Free download from the Google app store for Android and iphone.

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