5 Tools You Need for an Effective Practice Session

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We want to improve at playing our instruments. We know that practice is essential. We generally know our strengths and weaknesses. We have a place to practice. Is that all we need?


The Five Resource Areas

There are a number of essential tools and resource areas for consistent progress. There are physical things, the music we are working on, a team to help us, a good mental framework and attitude and the time to make it happen. Let’s look more closely at each of those areas.

1. Your Stuff

Here’s a list of things you need in your practice space. They could either be actual physical objects or apps on your phone, tablet or computer.

  1. Tuner- To help you get and stay in tune. Preferably one with potential to play a note/or drone, not just tell you if you are sharp or flat.
  2. Metronome- To help you maintain tempo, set increasing tempo goals, etc.
  3. Pencil- You need to be maniacal about writing in your music. Your memory will fail you. When in doubt, write it out.
  4. Chair- Or stool, or bench. Unless you want to stand. Pretty self-explanatory.
  5. Stopwatch- For running drills, to help maintain focus, etc.
  6. Clock- To help you keep track of how long you are engaged in each activity.
  7. Timer- As a partner with the previous two. Can be used as an incentive to get a certain amount done in a given amount of time.
  8. Music stand- Duh.
  9. Practice space- Double Duh.
  10. Audio recorder- You need to be able to hear your output from the audience’s perspective and recording yourself also ratchets up the intensity a bit. Additionally, you don’t have to remember anything. It’s all on the recording.
  11. Video recorder- Set up at various angles, a video recording will allow you to look for tension or strangeness in your setup.
  12. Batteries and/or charger- The tools won’t do you any good if they’re out of juice.
  13. Speaker or earbuds for playback- Careful listening to your playing will allow you to better diagnose and address issues.
  14. Mirror- In partnership with the video recorder, a mirror can give you real-time visual feedback.
  15. Water- Hydrate!
  16. Recordings- To help you figure out how you want to sound and/or interpret the music you are perfecting.
  17. Practice chart or log- Will be a record of your improvement and challenges. Will help you measure progress and assess whether your efforts are worthwhile. This can be extremely useful. You can also use it to record your toughs and feelings as you practice and you can look for patterns in your sessions, days, weeks, months and years.
  18. Instrument-specific items (reeds, valve oil, instrument stand, rosin, etc.)- Have all that stuff on hand.
  19. Maintenance or cleaning tools- Ditto for these. Expect the unexpected.
  20. My book, Music Practice Coach!

2. Your Music

It seems obvious, but the “what” you are practicing is very important to have with you (and not left in your locker, your other bag, in your dog’s mouth, etc.

  1. Ensemble parts- Could be large or chamber ensemble music.
  2. Solos- Whatever you have coming up for recital or audition.
  3. Etudes- What you are working on with your teacher or on your own.
  4. Scale sheets- The sooner you learn your scales and arpeggios, the faster you’ll progress.
  5. Lead sheets- Whether you are a jazzer or songwriter, you’ll need these.
  6. Chord charts or fingering charts- In case you forget.
  7. Play-along recordings- Will keep you honest, time-wise and can be a lot of fun. Good for performance practice.
  8. Pieces “for fun.”- Feed your soul! Don’t let it be all work and no play!
  9. Blank staff paper- For when inspiration strikes.
  10. Supplementary materials (historical or music theory-related)- As needed.

3. Your Team

Who can you count on to help you on your journey? Assembling a powerful team can make all the difference in your development. Choose carefully!

  1. Teacher- Either your band/choir/jazz/orchestra/ensemble director, private lesson teacher or an online guru.
  2. Mentor- Someone ahead of you who can provide encouragement, advice and reflection.
  3. Friend- Sometimes you need to vent!
  4. Practice partner- To keep each other accountable.
  5. Physical therapist, physician or psychologist- When needed. Don’t hesitate to use a trained professional early and often if needed to avoid long-term issues.

4. Your Attitude

Sometimes, the person you see in the mirror every morning can be either your biggest ally or greatest enemy. Time spent considering and developing a positive mental attitude will pay dividends for the rest of your life, in music and beyond.

  1. Optimism- You decide how to see life. Pick half full.
  2. Patience- Things will go wrong. Give them time to work themselves out.
  3. Plans for dealing with boredom or frustration- Increase or decrease the challenge to overcome these.
  4. S.M.A.R.T. goals- These will keep you on the road to progress. There’s another article which explains all about it in this series.
  5. Methods for dealing with fear/performance anxiety- How are you working to overcome the mental symptoms? The physical symptoms? The mental reframing needed to overcome this is key.
  6. Analytical skills- What is the best way to solve the issue? How should you use your time to get the most done?
  7. Ability to diagnose and coach yourself through challenges- Think scientist and coach. The scientist runs experiments to test ideas and the coach drills the ideas once they are identified.
  8. Self-awareness- Not easy, but important!
  9. Habit-formation skills- This one is huge. Ten minutes a day is much better than sixty minutes once a week.
  10. Calming/meditative skills- You won’t do yourself (or anyone else) any good if you are too worked up to get anything done.


5. Your Time

None of the rest of these tools make any difference if you don’t set aside time to use and develop them.

  1. Time for planning- Per session, day, week, month, semester, whatever you need.
  2. Time for diagnosis- What is the problem?
  3. Time for drills- Need to do those reps!
  4. Time for recording- How do I sound?
  5. Time for listening and analysis- Like I said, how do I sound?
  6. Time for score study- How does my part fit in with the overall piece. What is the structure of the piece? Where can I optimize my efforts in progressing?
  7. Time for listening to experts- Who are my models?
  8. Time for performance practice- Run simulation drills to get used to performing instead of stopping every time you hit a pothole.
  9. Time for reflection- Was that a good run? A good session? Are my goals appropriate?
  10. Time for playing just for the fun of it!- Feed the fire!

Use these categories to help you organize your mental and physical space. This will help you achieve your goals and make the music you were destined to make! Get to it!

Internationally known as an educator, performer, and creator, Lance LaDuke teaches at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA. His book, “Music Practice Coach,” is available as a free PDF download through his site. Lance is an Educational Ambassador for Jupiter Band Instruments, plays Parker Mouthpieces and is the co-host (with Andrew Hitz) of The Brass Junkies Podcast.


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