Getting the most out of a short practice

Ah yes, practice time. We could talk a lot about this (and we will!), but for now we’ll do our best to stick to the topic at hand – how to practise your instrument. Let’s assume then that the student has a comfortable practice space, supportive family members, and a short amount of time (preferably at a set time each day when they are at their most focussed).

Right, so what now?

Your teacher might have recommended a time limit for daily practice, but we recommend thinking about goals. While saying “10 mins” is a good bench mark, sooner or later the student is just going to be idly practising whilst mainly looking at the clock. It’s much more effective to set small achievable goals, and once they’re achieved, practice is done.

How to do it

Until your child is around 12 or so, they will definitely need some supervision from someone (yep, I mean you), so they get the most out of their home practice. Even if you’re yelling from the kitchen! 

Firstly, plan your session, and mix it up!

That’s right – plan your practice session. This doesn’t mean print out a colour-coded agenda with summary descriptions – you simply need to outline (spoken, scribbled..) 2-4 tasks to be achieved each day. Writing a vague practice plan for the week can be incredibly effective.

how to practise your instrument practice plan

Let’s say your singing teacher has assigned two small pieces and a scale for the week.

Rather than spending the entire daily session just on one piece, it’s best to do a bit of each task every day. For example, a couple of minutes on the scale then 3-4 minutes on each piece. Attention spans can be short, as you probably know. As we said above though, it’s not about just doing something for a few minutes, it’s about achieving a goal that should only take a few minutes. More on this below.

It is best to mix it up by doing things in a different order each day. This keeps the routine from getting stale. Although, one very important thing to remember… always save the best til last!

Does your child enjoy playing along to their piano book CD or a pop song? Or do they love just mucking around and making up their own songs? Whatever it is that makes them excited about playing, make sure they end the session with this. Memory can be selective – by ending each session on a high it’s much easier to get them back again the next day.

Ok, so you’ve got a rough and varied practice plan. Good. Now what?


Make everything achievable!

It’s important to remember that there’s no time limit on how long it takes to learn a piece.

Instead of thinking that you have to practice the whole piece all at once, break it down into achievable sections, say one hand (pianists) and a few bars at a time. Goals like this are much less daunting to a young learner, and they’ll feel good about their achievement.

Even with younger learners: achievement = progress = happy student!

Is practising something for 3 mins achievable? Yes? By idly playing over and over till the clock rolls around? Hmm

Think goals rather than time limits. Keep the goals achievable in just a few minutes.
For example, instead of saying “play your C Major scale for 3 mins”, say “play it perfectly three times up and back”. The idea is that that goal should only take around three minutes. If it takes 30 seconds, well it wasn’t hard enough – they can do it and so shouldn’t be practising it. If after 5 minutes they still haven’t done it once, adjust accordingly.

This is important.

It might sound complicated and difficult to monitor, but you’ll soon get accustomed to your child’s level, ability and progression.
Obviously as we achieve our goals, we need to keep ‘pushing the limits’. Practice is about learning the things you can’t currently do, not sitting in the already-mastered comfort zone.

Likewise, if you can see they’re struggling with a goal, then simplify it. Slow the metronome down or set only half a bar to be played, maybe only twice through. Remember, there’s no time limit on learning. Sense of achievement is crucial though.

How about setting a fun goal like the following examples:

– Can you play this section 3 times with no mistakes? (see below for a fun game!)
– Can you play the scale with the metronome at XXbpm? (fun metronome here!)
– Can you play this part with your left hand while patting your head with your right?
– Can you play it backwards?
– How fast can you play the last part with no mistakes?

You get the idea.

We pass milestones by creating them – daily.


Make it fun

There are loads of games you can use to make practice time more fun. Here are a couple of ideas to get you started:

Pet rescue! / Car chase / Insert fun name here is a simple game for any time when you need to repeat a small section over (and over) in order to master it. Basically, you place 3 small toys (grapes/marbles etc.) on the left side of the music stand. Each time your child gets the section correct, they get to move one toy to the right hand (or ‘safe’) side of the music stand. If they make a mistake, uh-oh, one toy has to go back to the left side again! Play continues til all pieces are safe or time runs out.

how to practise your instrument fun game

Play it Again printable for those pieces that are close to being finished but need a few more run-throughs (Don’t be surprised if your kids want to run through over and over with this game!) Ask your guitar teacher for a print out, or click here for a copy.

The Dice Game can be adapted to many different situations, but basically, you number your goals 1 – 6 (you can double up numbers if you have less goals) then roll the dice to choose which to work on next. Another simple but effective way to play is for when you need to repeat a section a few more times. The student rolls the dice and that is how many times they must play the section. You’d be surprised how motivating this can be!

So there it is – a little bit of planning with plenty of variation, achievable goals, and keep it fun!

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