The DabbledooMusic Way - How to Practice an Instrument

Practice Practice Practice
The most common piece of advice for anyone looking to learn a musical instrument is “just practice”.
It’s not really the most helpful advice and it’s not quite as simple as that.
Here is a full DabbledooMusic guide that will help you or your child to get better at your instrument and learn to love practicing. In our previous blog, we wrote a beginners guide for parents on the 'Best Musical Instrument for my Child to Learn'.

It’s not just sitting down with an instrument
There are many ways to help you get the practice in. In some ways its like getting someone who doesn't like veg to eat more vegetables. A plate of raw veg isn’t all that appealing. If you put the veg in a tasty lasagne they won’t even know they are eating it.
There are different ways to motivate and encourage your playing without resorting to the old “ just practice for half and hour every day”. Raw vegetables to a veg hater!

Here's our 7 top tips:
1. Play in a group
2. Listen to music
3. Keep the instrument where it’s easily accessible
4. Practice efficiently
5. Play music you like
6. Use the internet
7. Exams: Not the “be all and end all”

1. Play in a group
Individual lessons from a good teacher are the best way for most people to learn a musical instrument but regularly playing in a group is a great way to motivate yourself and develop your musicality. When you play and practice on your own, you are only listening to your own sound. When you play with others you have to play, listen to your part, listen to every else, and try to fit in! This is a new level of musicianship that will help your playing on any instrument.
In a group situation you are not only responsible for your own part but the sound of the overall group. It’s also a fun way to learn and a great way to make friends and socialise through music. You will often learn more from your fellow students than the teacher!
Whatever instrument you play, always look out for opportunities to play with others, whether in a school band or ensemble or in a local amateur group.

2. Listen to music
This may seem obvious but it is very important to listen to music, particularly music that features your chosen instrument.
Practicing an instrument is a physical activity that is controlled by the brain. Listening to music is giving your brain extra information that will help you along the way with your practice and playing.
Listening to music will also give you ideas for songs that you want to learn and the best motivation for practice is learning a song that you love.
If you are thinking of taking up Irish music, here's a short listening guide to get you started:

3. Keep the instrument where it’s easily accessible
Try to leave your instrument out of its case!
This is a practical tip I give all of my students. The first psychological barrier to practice is taking the instruments out of the case. If you leave the instrument in a safe place on a purpose made stand then all you have to do is pick it up and play.
With younger children in the house this might be a frightening idea but if you choose the right spot and talk to the children about being careful around musical instruments, its worth it.
I am learning the fiddle at the moment and I leave it on a safe shelf in the kitchen. Every time I'm in my kitchen, and have a few minutes to spare, I grab it off the shelf and play a few tunes while the kettle’s boiling. I don’t have a lot of time for long practice sessions but I’m getting 5 minutes here and there and I’m getting better (slowly).

4. Practice efficiently
When you get down to actually practicing your instrument it is important to practice in an efficient way.
Every new song will present technical challenges that will need to be practiced. This means that certain small parts of a piece of music will have to be singled out and given special attention, repeating them slowly until the brain and body can process what’s happening.
Here’s an example of how practicing efficiently will save you time:

The “3 times in a row” trick.
Say you have a song that is 3 minutes long with a very tricky technical bit at the end that last about 10 seconds.
Playing through the entire song 10 times to practice the final tricky part will take 30 minutes. That’s a lot of practice without really addressing the problem.
Taking the tricky part separately and playing it 10 times will take under 2 minutes.
If you take it slowly and gradually build up speed and confidence with this tricky part you could spend maybe 10 minutes and have it perfected.
Now you can play the whole song and you have done some solid technical practice that will help you with other songs in the future.
Always take tricky parts of song as an opportunity to do some valuable technical work. And its more fun than playing scales for technique. This advice was given to me by master guitarist John Williams. If it worked for him it can work for you!

Practice efficiently and you might play like this some day!!!!!!

5. Play music you like
I always encourage my own students to choose their own music as much as possible. It is important for instrument teachers to introduce their students to new music but it is equally important for the student to be playing music they enjoy playing and practicing.
This goes back to the importance of listening to music. Find music that you like on your new instrument and bring it to your teacher. There is no better motivation for practice than finding a song that you really love and learning how to play it. An extra benefit is that this song is already fully formed and understood inside your head. You can probably sing all the parts and you know how it is structured. You might not know you know, but you do.
This makes it so much easier for the teacher to get down to the technical challenges that the song might present. Its always a win-win situation when a student chooses a good song to learn and they often come to me with amazing choices that I would never have thought of!
If your teacher doesn’t let you choose any of your own music, find a new teacher.

6. Use the internet
This will show my age, but when I was first learning guitar I had to tape music off the TV or radio and listen back to figure out how to play songs.
I would stay up late to tape BBC documentaries about Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and the 60’s blues/rock and roll explosion that saw the electric guitar become the coolest instrument in the world. I would rewind and rewatch hundreds of times to see how Jimi did that behind the neck slide thing at the start of “like a rolling stone”.

These days, you can find practically any song on any instrument with a choice of Youtube tutorial on how to play it.
Youtube is an incredible resource for learning an instrument but use your ears! If you don’t like someones version of a song, try to find another one.
Here's some great fiddle lessons on Youtube from some of the worlds greatest fiddle players:

YouTube is also a great place to find inspiration for your music practice. Whatever instrument you play there is a range of performances from the greatest musicians available on YouTube. Ask your music teacher for some musicians that they would recommend. A good teacher will be able to find music and musicians that will suit your taste and style.
Going to see live music is another valuable way to inspire and encourage music practice. Unfortunately there are not a lot of child friendly venues so keep your eyes open for family festivals, workshops and events where you can introduce your children to live music.

7. Exams: Not the “be all and end all”
One of the most common things I hear from adults is “I played an instrument and did my grade 3 exam, but haven’t played since”
Exams can be a good way to motivate students and some students prefer to have something at the end of the year to work towards. If the exam becomes the only reason you are playing or practicing your instrument then something is wrong.
Exams in music should be part of a more rounded, holistic approach to learning an instrument as described above. Even when studying an instrument in a formal setting like a third level music degree, a good teacher will encourage their student to explore other pieces of music that are not on the exam curriculum and other ways to improve their musicianship.
Many exam curriculums give very little choice to the student or teacher as to the music they are playing and unless the chosen exam pieces serendipitously match the type and style of music you are interested in, it can become a struggle to find the motivation to practice.
Unfortunately, following an exam curriculum, and nothing more, is one of the easiest ways to teach an instrument and the easiest way to show result to keep parents happy.

Be Careful!
The danger with charting musical progress through exams, is that most exam curriculums assess what is easy to assess, technical performance.
The benefits of learning a musical instrument are wide and varied and individual to each student. Exams cannot assess the development of musical understanding, self confidence, development of cultural empathy, communication skills or the simple enjoyment of playing an instruments.
In short, exams can be a great motivation for learning an instrument but should not become the sole purpose. Students should never be put under undue pressure with music exams. It might be a way to short term success but it could also lead to a life without playing an instrument again and that is too big a risk to take.

As we have seen, there is a lot to learning an instruments and a lot of ways to practice and improve. The good thing is that most of the ways we have discussed are fun and accessible and involve an enjoyable social aspect.
Sitting down with an instrument and physically practicing music through slow and methodical repetition is of vital importance but the motivating factors and situations that get us there are also key.
So to bring back the vegetable analogy; practice is good for you, but make sure it’s as part of a balanced musical diet.

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