Practice Basics: One Thing at a Time
Updated: Apr 14
This was originally posted on my old blog on April 4, 2013, and has been updated for this new post.
If you've had a dozen lessons with me, then you almost certainly have heard me give you this very important principle to good practice. Inevitably, you will attempt to learn something that seems overwhelming. You have to address every obstacle in a piece of music in order to learn it completely, but you don't have to and shouldn't try to do it all at once. That's probably obvious enough, but let's take it one step further: don't even try to solve TWO things at once. Limit it to one.
Sometimes the problem is as simple as getting from note # 1 to note # 2. You may need to practice that slowly, then speed up. Sometimes the rhythm is a problem. Get off the keyboard and practice on a table. No pitches to hear, so you need to focus on the rhythm. Sometimes it's pedaling. So pedal as you watch the music imagining you are playing without actually moving your hands. We'll go over more ways than this, but the point is: take care of just one problem at a time. In a really tough passage, it may mean ignoring one problem while you work on another. You'll do nothing but frustrate yourself trying to multi-task.
Once you've solved 2 separate problems, you can connect them as a new single problem.
To elaborate, here are 20 ways you can reduce your practice challenges down to one task at a time.
If it's a challenge of hands together, practice one hand at a time slowly until it feels comfortable.
If it's a problem with tempo, set the metronome to 50% of your desired speed. Still too fast, set it to 25% of your desired tempo, and increase it by 5-10% until you feel like you've made significant progress.
Vocalists, if you have trouble putting the notes with the lyrics, separate the tasks. Sing the passage on a solfège sound such as "ah" or "ooh". Also, recite the lyrics in rhythm on a monotone or otherwise undetermined pitch.
To rapidly change from 1 chord to another, first go super slowly between the chord changes. Then visualize chord number two while holding the position of chord number one until you can quickly pop from one to another. Then, "bump" the first chord on the way to the second so you can get the real-time up-to-tempo effect of playing the two chords quickly.
Brass players, go through the fingerings or slide positions without using your mouthpiece. Likewise, take the mouthpiece off the horn, and buzz your approximate way through the passage.
Instrumentalists of all type, use your voice and sing through the troublesome passage, even really slowly.
Put the instrument down and pretend you're playing. Guitarists, practice "air guitar". Pianists and keyboardists, mime the playing at the table.
Pianists, leave out the pedal until you can play it well with just the hands. Be sure to play it with the exact same articulation you would use if the pedal was added. Don't try to compensate for the lack of pedal effect by playing too legato.
EVERY SINGLE TIME you add an element (from hands separate to hands together, going from the table to the instrument, adding a measure to your practice section), slow down. It's not a bad idea to assume you should slow down by half. Remember that practice is not so simple as 1+1=2. Just because you've improved two connected problems separately doesn't mean they will just snap together. Putting two previous problems together is a new problem on its own, and you need to treat it as such.
One measure at a time, but in reverse. Let's say you're working on measures one through eight. First, practice just measure eight over and over until you've made noticeable progress. Then practice starting at measure seven and go through measure eight. Then start at measure six and go through measure eight. Then measure five, and so on until you've made it to measure one.
For fast passages, practice with an exaggerated long-short (or slow-fast) rhythm. In other words, hold the first note down while you visualize what you need to do for the next two notes. Play the 2nd note quickly, and land on the 3rd note. Repeat this process to get past the 4th note to the 5th note. Then reverse the emphasis by starting quickly with the 1st note and landing to wait on the 2nd note (short-long or fast-slow). Then do 2 short notes after each long one. Then do 3 short notes after each long one. Keep progressing until you're going from beat 1 of the measure until beat 1 of the following measure.
Ignore all dynamics until it's time to focus on them.
Ignore all articulation until it's time to focus on them.
Find an exercise or etude that is relevant to the passage, or create your own, and work on that for a while.
For memorization problems, start with a single note or chord while you look at the sheet music. Then play or sing it while you look away. Now do this "with music and without" for 2 notes, then a whole measure, then 2 measures, then 4 measures...until you have a full passage.
If you're a beginner or still struggling to learn to read notes from the staff, recite each staff as slow as you need, saying each letter aloud. Then do that while playing or singing it.
For dynamics and articulation, briefly but intentionally try doing the opposite. Play or sing staccatos as legatos and vice versa. Make loud signs soft, and soft signs loud, Don't do this for long and create a bad habit, but it helps give you better control.
For mistakes, remember the 1-to-5 rule. For each 1 mistake, you rehearse the passage carefully until you can do it 5 times in a row correctly. Take this seriously. If you play it 4 times in a row correctly and then make a mistake, the count starts over.
Beware of "almost mistakes". This is when you find yourself with a wrong fingering or about to play the wrong note. You catch yourself and fix it. However, the "almost mistakes" nearly always become fully-realized mistakes in a performance situation. Isolate and find out what's causing the "almost mistake" and work on correcting the tendency. For example, with pianists it could be a finger angle or wrist movement. For brass and woodwind players, it could be a fingering combination that you've developed a bad habit of wanting to do.
Always stop when you've had enough. Pushing through frustration or exhaustion is never the answer. At the very least, take a break, or see if you can reduce what you're practicing even further.
How do you practice just one thing at a time in a way that is effective? Let me know in the comments at https://www.davidlanemusic.com/contact or if you want possible inclusion on a future podcast episode, leave a voice message at https://www.speakpipe.com/MusicianToolkit
In the meantime, remember to abolish trying to ever solve more than 1 problem at a time.
Listen to the Musician Toolkit episode on this topic here.