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Learning Your Instrument: How to Practise Effectively

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

Ever felt like learning a musical instrument is like stepping into a whole new world? It's an adventure filled with ups and downs, whether you're just starting out or you've been playing for years. The real trick to getting better isn't just practice – it's about practicing smartly and with a deep understanding of your unique learning style.. In this article, I'm going to share some tips and tricks that work for everyone, whether you're just beginning or you're looking to polish your skills.


Unveiling Your Practice Style


Every musician's journey is as distinctive as their fingerprint. Some revel in the structured guidance of sheet music, while others thrive on the spontaneous freedom of improvisation. Recognising your preferred learning style is the cornerstone of crafting a practice routine that resonates with your sensibilities.


Visual Learners

Visual learners flourish when presented with visual cues and aids. Sheet music, tablature, and instructional videos are invaluable tools for visual learners, providing a clear roadmap to navigate the intricacies of the instrument.


Auditory Learners

Auditory learners absorb information most effectively through sound. Listening to recordings of renowned musicians, attending live performances, and engaging in ear training exercises are all excellent ways for auditory learners to enhance their musical understanding.


Kinaesthetic Learners

Kinaesthetic learners rely on hands-on experiences to grasp concepts fully. Immersive practice sessions, guided by a patient teacher, are ideal for kinaesthetic learners, allowing them to internalise techniques and develop muscle memory.

Tailoring Practice to Individual Needs and Preferences


The secret sauce of effective practice? Make it your own. Try out different methods and stick with what clicks with you. This personalised approach keeps learning fun and efficient, turning practice time into your time.



Effective Practise Techniques


The Role of Repetition and Muscle Memory (or enhanced neural pathways)

Let's talk about the backbone of mastering any instrument: repetition. We hear so often that it's all about building muscle memory so your fingers know where to go without you even thinking about it. But that is not quite accurate.


  1. Learning Phase: When you first start learning a new physical skill, your brain is heavily involved in the process. This stage requires a lot of conscious effort and attention. You're actively thinking about each step or movement as you do it.

  2. Repetition and Practice: As you repeat the action over and over, the neural pathways in your brain that are responsible for that action become more and more efficient. This process is known as synaptic plasticity. Essentially, the more you practise, the stronger and more efficient these neural pathways become.

  3. Transfer to Subconscious Control: Gradually, the skill becomes more automatic and requires less conscious thought. This is when muscle memory kicks in. The skill has been transferred from conscious processing to subconscious or automatic processing. At this point, you can perform the task with much less mental effort, and it feels more natural and fluid.

  4. Stored in the Brain, Expressed Through Muscles: While we call it "muscle memory," the memory of how to perform the task is actually stored in your brain, specifically in a region called the basal ganglia. Your muscles themselves don't remember anything; they simply respond to signals from your brain.

  5. Benefits of Muscle Memory: The advantage of muscle memory is that once a skill is ingrained in this way, it's relatively persistent. It allows for quick and efficient movement, often with a high degree of precision, without the need for conscious thought. This is why a pianist can play complex pieces without looking at their hands or a cyclist can ride a bike without actively thinking about balance.

  6. Refinement and Maintenance: Even after a skill has become automatic, it can still be refined and improved with further practice. However, if not used for a prolonged period, the efficiency of these neural pathways can decrease, which is why practice and regular engagement with the skill are important to maintain proficiency.


So in summary, muscle memory is a powerful form of procedural memory that allows us to perform complex physical tasks with ease and precision, thanks to the efficient neural pathways developed in our brains through practice and repetition.


But remember, it's not just about playing the same thing over and over – it's about playing it right. If you allow mistakes to creep in without correcting them, you will learn the mistake, not the correct version. Whenever you make a mistake, make sure you play it again, without making that mistake, so the last way you play it is the way you want your brain to remember it.



Creative Approaches: Mixing Routine with Innovation


Sure, repetition is key, but let's not forget about creativity. Mix things up by trying different genres, writing your own songs, or jamming along with your favourite tracks. It's a great way to sharpen your skills and keep your passion burning bright, and don’t be afraid to incorporate technology and online resources! We're lucky to live in a digital age where so many tools are just a click away. From metronome apps to online tutorials, these resources can really spice up your practice sessions and give you a fresh perspective. As well as giving you insights to problems you are facing from people who have already been there. Why re-invent the wheel after all!!



Staying Motivated


Setting Realistic Goals and Milestones

Motivation flourishes when we set achievable goals that serve as stepping stones along our musical path. Whether it's mastering a challenging piece or improvising with newfound confidence, establishing clear objectives keeps your practice focused and rewarding.


Celebrating Small Victories: Savouring the Sweetness of Progress

Don't overlook the significance of acknowledging your progress, no matter how incremental. Celebrate each conquered scale, each flawlessly executed passage, each newfound musical triumph. These small victories form the foundation of your musical growth.


Balancing Discipline and Enjoyment: The Yin and Yang of Practice

At its core, music is a celebration of joy and self-expression. While discipline is crucial, never lose sight of the inherent pleasure that music offers. Approach your practice with a sense of playfulness and exploration, savouring the journey as much as the destination.


Conquering Practice Plateaus: Navigating the Rough Waters


Identifying the Signs of Stagnation

Recognise the signs when you find yourself in a practice plateau, feeling uninspired and stagnant. Acknowledging this lull is the first step towards breaking through the barrier.


Strategies for Reinvigorating Your Practice

When the practice blues set in, shake up your routine. Challenge yourself with a new technique, explore a different genre, or seek guidance from a mentor. Sometimes, a brief respite can rekindle your passion and propel you forward.


Seeking Guidance and Mentorship: The Wisdom of Experience

Don't hesitate to seek guidance from experienced musicians and mentors. Their insights and expertise can illuminate new pathways and help you overcome obstacles.


Conclusion: Embracing the Journey of Musical Growth


So, what's the bottom line? Effective practice isn't just about the time you spend with your instrument, but how you use that time. It's a mix of discipline, creativity, and knowing yourself. As you continue on this musical journey, cherish every note, every challenge, and every victory. Remember, the path to musical growth is just as beautiful as the destination.

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