Optimize Your Practice Time

February’s Blog promised a follow-up on making the most of your practice time.  So, here ya’ go!  I have separated my ideas and tips into a list for Voice and a list for Piano.  Some of the concepts cross over and are universal for all instruments, but it’s a tad on the long side.  So, if you want to skip to the section that applies to you, that’s okay!


The two most common excuses I hear from my students about why they didn’t get as much practice as they wanted are 1) “I had a cold or was sick” and 2) “I had so much going on, I didn’t have time.”  The third excuse that people don’t readily admit is they weren’t sure how to practice or what they were supposed to do in their practice session.  This problem is more common for voice students than any other instrument, because things can be a bit abstract.  Here are some tangible things you can actually do to avoid all three of these barriers to practicing voice.

  1. Not feeling well (or just don’t feel like singing – yes, that happens to the best of us)? Here are some things you can do to still make progress.
    1. Write in your translation and pronunciations.
      1. Singing a foreign language piece? Write in your word for word translation and your pronunciations (use IPA if you know it, if not use what works for you). Check out IPAsource.com for help with translations and pronunciations.
      2. Translate your English. Huh? – Yes, go through and write in what it means to you or how you would say the same message. This will help you perform it better. 
  • Think through what gestures you might use in performance and write them in so you don’t forget.
  1. Write in your counting
    1. Especially at entrances or passages that are tricky. Make sure you really know what it is and aren’t relying on what you’ve heard to get you by.
  2. Speak the text in rhythm – breathing where you plan to when you sing it
  3. Listen!
    1. Listen to your rep, listen for new rep, listen to your last voice lesson (hopefully you recorded it) and transcribe it.
  4. Have only 10 or 15 minutes to practice?
    1. Vocalize
      1. Check in with your voice? How’s it feeling today?
      2. Do the warm-ups you did in your last lesson. Pay attention to where your breath is versus where it should be.  Check in with your placement.  Is it in the mouth, in the voice, in the throat (I hope not)?  You get the idea.  Pay attention to the technical things you are currently working on.
    2. The goal of the short practice session: A quick reminder of the fundamentals. Sometimes small technical breakthroughs can happen in a short time.  Make a quick note about what worked and what didn’t, so you can revisit it when you have more time.
  5. Have a longer time (like 20 or more minutes), but aren’t sure what to do?
    1. Vocalize – see the information from above
    2. Work on your Repertoire
      1. Don’t just start at the beginning. Work the areas that are problem spots for a little bit.  Then review a section you know better.
      2. Learn new sections. Your lesson should not be the place to really learn the music.  If you have the skills to learn it on your own, you should.  If you feel a bit inadequate in the music reading area, that’s okay.  Record your lessons and listen to them.  Learn your pieces this way.  It will help you learn rep. faster so you that you can focus on the actual sound production in lessons.
    3. Memorization. Even if you don’t have a performance coming up, it’s never a waste to memorize a piece.  You can focus on other aspects of singing if you aren’t staring at the page.  You never know what last minute opportunity might come up to perform, and you will be ready.


Pianist don’t tend to have as many barriers to actually practicing, as their practice plan is a bit more clearly defined.  However, there are many ways you can be more efficient with your practice time and really focus on the quality of it, not just the quantity or number of minutes.

First, what should you be doing in your practice session?

  1. Technical Exercises/Scales, etc.
    1. Are these really necessary? Can you just run through them once and call it good?  Sorry, yes they are necessary and no, once isn’t good enough.  What is their purpose? – dexterity, agility, strength, training & toning your muscles. Scales and technical exercises are not a one and done kind of deal.  Pianist do them and re-do them. All. The. Time.  Just like an athlete preparing for a marathon, once around the block is not going to make him/her ready to win the race.  Work the parts that are tricky over and over.  Here’s an example of what I mean.  Example: A student just learning the fingering for a scale and putting hands together for the first time shouldn’t play through the scale and get to the end no matter what happens to the fingering. They should practice the cross-overs several times until they feel comfortable and then put it in context with the rest of the scale.
    2. Repertoire
      1. Don’t just start at the beginning. Start with the hard passages – really work the fingering, rhythm, and articulations.  Then put it in context with a larger section of the work or the whole piece.
    3. Theory
      1. Don’t forget to do your theory and start to see the connections with what you are practicing on paper with what you are playing.

Only have a short amount of practice time?

  1. Just do your scales or technical exercises, being mindful of their purpose (see above).
  2. Spend 5 minutes on the “hard part of a piece.” Have 4 measures of a sonata that is really tricky and bothering you?  Spend 5 – 10 minutes on those 4 measures.  Slowly make sure notes, fingering, and rhythm are correct.  It is painstaking, but if you spend 5 – 10 minutes on it here and there, before you know it, it starts to get easier. 

Have a longer time to practice?

  1. Add to the list above by playing pieces from start to finish. For pieces that are newer or still tricky, correct rhythm is of utmost importance.  So don’t go too fast.  Only go as fast as you’re able to play the hardest part.  Then start to increase the speed as that part improves.  This will avoid having to undo habits and weird pauses later on (much harder to do).

Can’t get to a piano, but have a few minutes?

  1. Do your theory.
  2. Already did it? Write in beats to tricky rhythm parts of your rep.  Circle or highlight dynamic markings and articulations that you sometimes miss when playing it.
  3. Look up some info on the composer or historical period of the piece. This may give you insights into how to perform the piece, and at the very least, just make it more interesting for you.
  4. Listen – yes, this applies to instrumentalists too. Listen to your pieces and listen for how important dynamics and articulations are to making a piece really musical and interesting.  Listen while looking at your score to solidify tricky rhythm spots.

I hope these help.  I know that sometimes the pursuit of musical study can be a bit daunting as things are not as cut and dry as other subjects we study in school.  But, try incorporating some of these ideas into what you already do.  Or if you’re not doing anything so far, pick one of these tips and start!

Now go practice!