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"Perfect Practice Makes Perfect"

This article is about developing certain fundamental musical skills. [Many potentially useful resources are linked throughout.]

Ear Training

No matter how much Music Theory we know, being able to recognize what we are hearing is such an important aspect of music that it cannot be ignored. We have to intentionally listen to music with the aim of comprehending its structure, at least until its basic patterns (like Intervals and simple Triads) become "second nature". Thankfully, there are ways of approaching this task that are both fun and easy!

Saxologic gives a method to practice something like Absolute Pitch. Likewise, Julian Bradley gives a wonderful demonstration of Interval Arithmetic and how to practice Relative Pitch. There are also some low priced smartphone games, like Meludia Melody (which is based off of the Ear Training website made by the same company).

Technique & Memorization

Spending some time learning how to navigate our instrument without strain is important, even more than Ear Training! Please do not neglect this. Everything about using an instrument hinges upon this understanding and it should be the very first thing that we do before we ever try practicing anything else.

For example, in the case of playing the piano, we should be sitting upright on a bench that is positioned high enough and far away enough from the piano for our elbows to be slightly higher than the keyboard and open at an obtuse angle. We should be relaxed throughout (i.e.: fingers, wrist, elbow, shoulder, back, etc.).

Not only is our starting position important, but also how we move. To continue our example, one does not "push" into the keys. Instead, we let the weight of our arm fall onto them from a low height as our hand makes a gentle curve so that the finger joints do NOT bend backwards as they make contact. Gravity does all the work. We only engage our muscles to lift our arms slightly, and then release them completely as the arm falls. This keeps us from getting tired or hurting ourselves as we play. More subtle movements (like how the fingers slide to play quickly without crossing or how the forearms make light circular motions) will come with careful personal observation and guidance from helpful teachers.

Every instrument has its own set of practices which constitute "good technique", whether we are talking about guitar, woodwinds / brass, or the voice when singing.

Technique does more than keep us from injury, it helps us to memorize music better as well. The pianist Jocelyn Swigger has given an interesting lecture that shows this connection clearly. At about 4 minutes into the talk, she gives a diagram representing four different types of memory [not to be confused with the diagram that we gave at the end of the Tips For Sight-Reading article]:

1. Visual Memory (Look) - How does it look when it is played (i.e.: what is the positioning of one's hands)?

2. Aural Memory (Sound) - How do we want it to sound? What sounds are we focusing in on?

3. Muscle Memory (Feel) - What does it feel like to play it? (It shouldn't hurt!)

4. Analytical Memory (Shape) - Find patterns and chunk information into digestable parts through your understanding of Music Theory and Technique.

She then uses this outline to come up with a practice plan that integrates all four types of memory!

A Comprehensive Approach

Jermaine Griggs, of Hear and Play, once gave an outline of how a musician should divide up their practice time and what should be done within each portion. It looked something like this:

Fundamentals Fluency (FF)
Chordal Command (CC)
Pattern Proficiency (PP)
Song Solidity (SS)
Ear Efficiency (EE)
• Scales
• The Number System
• Finger Exercises (e.g.: Hanon)
• Intervals
• Rhythm
• Triads
• Extended Chords
• Inversions
• Primary vs. Secondary
• Voicings
• Diatonic Chords
• Circle of Fifths
• Stepwise Motion
• Advanced Progressions
• Transposing To All Keys
• Find The Key
• Determine The Melody
• Determine The Bass Pattern
• Determine The Chords
• Determine Nuances (e.g.: Passing Chords)
• Basic Ear-Training (e.g.: Software)
• Pattern Recognition
• Circle of Fifth Substitutions
• Chordal Variations / Enhancements
• Experimentation
15% of Practice Routine
20% of Practice Routine
20% of Practice Routine
25% of Practice Routine
20% of Practice Routine

The lengths of time are given as percentages so that it can be adapated to any amount of practice that we can set aside. For example: If we have 2 hours, then 18 minutes will be spent on FF, 30 minutes on SS, and 24 minutes on CC, PP, and EE, respectively. If we only have 1 hour, then it will be 9 minutes on FF, 15 minutes on SS, and 12 minutes on CC, PP, and EE, respectively. It is a very efficient method.

It does not have to be strictly regimented, but all five of these domains are related to one another and should be done in tandem as much as possible. This is because it is their combination (FF + CC + PP + SS + EE) that makes for a solid foundation in musicianship.


We cannot emphasize enough the importance of the above practices. They will keep you from wasting years of effort and make it more enjoyable to play.

Thank you for reading!