I’m frequently asked, “What’s a good practice routine (or schedule)?” Well, it depends on who you are and what you want to accomplish with your music. It can also vary depending on “where you’re at” at a given time.
We don’t always need a specific practice routine, but at times they can help us overcome our greatest obstacles: lack of continuity and lack of motivation. A jazz bassist friend of mine is so motivated he doesn’t need a plan. He described his typical practice session to me as, “I pick up my bass and play a note. Then I see where that note leads me.” An hour or two later, he puts his bass down.
This approach can work, and I’ve used it myself at times. But it only works when we’re feeling motivated. And it doesn’t always ensure that we’re addressing what we really need to work on.
So how do we come up with a practice routine that suits our current situation? The first thing is to plan on a set amount of time to practice daily. I suggest starting with a short amount of time that is easily attainable. You can always stay at the piano longer if you like, but you're likely setting yourself up for disappointment if you start with 3 hours per day.
Let’s say you're very busy and don’t get to the piano every day. As ridiculous as it might sound, set yourself the goal of playing for 5 minutes per day for a week. You’re probably thinking, “That’s not enough time to improve at all!” But let’s reflect on this for a moment: Right now you’re skipping entire days. 5 minutes would ensure that you get to the piano every day, get much-needed continuity, and establish the habit of playing on a daily basis. This in itself would be worth the week’s effort. And as I said, you can always play more if you want to. I once gave this assignment to a elementary school-age student who was having trouble practicing daily. At her next lesson, she reported that, “I couldn’t do it! It always turned into 20 minutes!” (This was from someone who hadn’t practiced steadily in months.)
Now let’s say we have more time than that. What would our schedule look like?
If you have 30 min/day, you have 2 options:
1. Divide up the 30 min. and do it daily
10 min. – play pieces I already know and enjoy
15 min. – learn the new pieces for this week’s lesson
5 min. – improvise and make up music
2. Another approach would be to alternate days, focusing on one piece today, and another tomorrow, alternating throughout the week. This can keep things fresh and may work better when we’re learning music that’s technically challenging and needs 20-30 minutes to get under your fingers.
Let’s say we have an hour. My favorite way of approaching this is to have six 10-minute segments. This is just enough time for me to “get into” a certain tune or technique but it lets me cover a wide range each day.
You might pick a jazz tune, like “All The Things You Are,” and focus on six playing techniques, each for 10 min:
1. Melodic embellishment and variation
2. Left-hand rootless voicings
3. Improvising over walking bass line
4. Harmonizing the melody with block chords
5. Applying diminished scales to all dominant chords in song
6. Transposing into a different key each day
Or, if you play classical music:
1. Sightreading easy pieces (w/o stopping for mistakes)
2. Bach Inventions (hands separately)
3. Bach Inventions (hands together: slowly and gradually increase tempo)
4. scales and arpeggios
5. Chopin Mazurka
6. Debussy Prelude
Or use a combination of the above, incorporating your own musical interests.
If you have 2 or more hours per day to practice, things get more interesting. I like to combine longer and shorter times in the same routine, thinking of "big and little gears" turning at different speeds. You can practice one element for 30 min. to really delve into it, and then divide the next half-hour into smaller periods to break things up. Here's one possibility for a 2-hour session:
30 min: Bach Fugue
15 min: Walking bass lines
15 min: 2-handed voicings with upper extensions
30 min: Compose tunes
10 min: Memorize jazz standards
10 min: Practice blues scales in difficult keys over a rock beat
10 min: Anything I like
I’ve used several kinds of practice schedules at different times of my life. In high school, I practiced a strict 3 hours per day, every day. I couldn’t sightread very well, so I read through Bach 4-part chorales for 45 min. daily. (I set a kitchen timer and didn’t stop until the bell went off!) Then I transposed easy classical pieces into different keys and went on to pop and jazz. In college, I practiced more, and frequently spent 3 straight hours on a single Bach Invention.
Nowadays, I don’t have that much time to sit and practice, so I’ve been experimenting with different approaches. For 4 months, I set the goal of playing scales for 30 min. per day. Even if that was all I did that day, at least I got in my 30 min. of scales and felt some forward movement as my technique improved over the 4 months. About a week ago this started to feel a little stale, so I changed up. Now I play each major or minor scale only once, then each arpeggio once. Then a Bach Prelude and Fugue and a Chopin Mazurka, only once each. After that, I play 10 jazz standards, for only 2 choruses each.
My goal with this plan is twofold:
1. It’s the minimum I need to keep in musical shape, and
2. I want to whet my musical appetite, but not satisfy it. By stopping after once through the Bach, I want to continue. By playing short versions of the jazz tunes, I connect with the songs, and feed my love for the music just enough to make me want too sit down later in the day and play again, which I usually do. I'm trying to reawaken my teenage enthusiasm for learning! I’ll try this for a month and see how it works.
I hope this gives you some ideas on creating your own practice routines. Keep in mind what is practical for you at this time, and incorporate both short and long-term goals. Try your plan for a month and then see what worked and what didn’t. Then revise it if needed.
Good luck and above all, have fun!
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