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How to Practice and Learn Music Efficiently

Updated on August 28, 2012

Most people get stuck learning a new piece of music because they are not aware of the best way to practice. So they start at the beginning of a piece, play until they make a mistake, and then start at the beginning of the piece again. This is a method guaranteed to make sure you never learn the piece, or learn it very slowly! Instead, follow the method outlined below and cut your practice time down to minutes per day, and learn your music fast and accurately!

Piano Keyboard
Piano Keyboard | Source

Let's Practice!

  • Eliminate all possible distractions. Before you begin practicing, take a bathroom break, get a snack and a glass of water, turn off your phone, and inform family members not to disturb you. Get everything you need together: pencils, instrument, accessories, notebook, so that you don't have to interrupt your session. Set your timer for a few minutes before the end of the practice session so that you can take time to wrap up.
  • Take a few deep breaths and clear your mind. Relax as much as possible, because relaxation is one of the major steps to good performing.
  • If this is your first time working with a particular piece of music, look it over carefully. Identify any places that seem to be similar to (or even the same as) other places. This will cut down enormously on your practice time as you will already have the logic of part of the piece worked out.
  • Set a goal for your practice session. This could be working out fingering or bowing in a passage, or getting your breath marks correct, or working a passage up to tempo, or learning new material.
  • Pull out your music. Begin at the very end of the piece. Work on the last few measures of the piece as slowly as necessary to play or sing it perfectly. If you have any difficulty, write yourself a note. With your metronome, once you've perfected the playing, (including phrasing, dynamics, expression, etc.) slowly work it up to tempo by advancing the metronome a click or two at a time until you reach the correct tempo.
  • If you make a mistake, mark it clearly. If you continue to make the same mistake, mark it again in a different color, or circle it so you will pay attention.
  • Now go back through the piece a few more measures. Again, start as slowly as necessary, make notes to yourself, and work your way through to the very end of the piece, including the material you've already learned, at the same tempo. With the metronome, work the part you're working on through the end of the piece up to tempo. (So if you started with measures 120-124 in step 4, then did measures 116-120 in this step, each time you play you will be playing from measures 116-124 at the same tempo, practicing again what you've already perfected.)
  • When the timer goes off, take a minute to evaluate your session. Were there distractions? Did you have difficulties concentrating? Did you accomplish your goal? Write down anything that helped or hurt your practice.
  • Before your next practice session, review your notes. What can you do to improve your environment? Do you need questions answered or have to look up information before you can continue? Make these changes before the start of your next practice session.

Things to Consider

Practicing from the end of a piece of music may seem completely counter-intuitive, but there are two very good reasons to do it in this way. First, it draws on a learning method called "chaining" which has proven in numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies to be an extremely effective way to learn any task, because it is easier to attach new material on to the beginning of an already-learned task than the end of it. Second, when you get out in public and actually begin to perform, there's a huge difference. Most people start at the beginning and as they play through a piece, they're confronted with material they've practiced less and less. This way, you start out with the most unfamiliar material first, and once you get through the first few measures, the material becomes easier and more familiar the further into the piece to play, and your confidence level increases the further you get through the piece.

Also consider using this method to learn monologues for acting. Believe it or not, this actually works!


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  • profile image

    Mariya 5 years ago from Redmond, WA

    Thank you for sharing your ideas. I'm always working toward more mindful practice in myself and my students. Figuring out how to work on something and then evaluating can make a huge difference in the effectiveness of a practice session.

  • Piano Street profile image

    Piano Street 5 years ago from Stockholm, Sweden

    I know well from experience that studying a piece backwards is a very efficient method, for the reasons that you mentioned but also simply because it forces you to become methodical in your practice. Interesting to read about the theory of "chaining".

  • WriteAngled profile image

    WriteAngled 5 years ago from Abertawe, Cymru

    This is fascinating! I have enormous problems memorising anything, including music and spoken pieces. I will certainly be trying your suggestion to work backwards.

  • nifwlseirff profile image

    Kymberly Fergusson 5 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

    Ooo - I must try learning a piece backwards. It will probably work well for me, if I can be patient!