Making Practice Time Productive

Making Practice Time Productive

Effective Use of Practice Cycles

By NAfME members Bob Habersat and Paul Levy

How do you become a better musician? The most common answer students give is “practice.” But what does that mean?

When young musicians sit down to “practice,” they often end up playing things they’ve already learned or noodle around and try to play something that sounds good. Both of these are important parts of being a musician, but it’s not the most efficient use of time.

Making practice time productive is difficult and usually takes years or trial and error to figure out. One way practice can become more efficient and effective is through the use of practice cycles. A practice cycle follows this order:

  • create a baseline recording
  • write S.M.A.R.T. goals
  • select a goal based on the Steps To Mastery
  • practice using one or more practice strategies
  • create a final recording
  • and write a reflection

Creating a Practice Cycle

The first step in a practice cycle is to create a baseline recording. The baseline is the level that can be played BEFORE the practice session. Recording and listening back to a recording is one of the most difficult things to do as a musician, but it is the easiest and most effective way to find the baseline. 

Students create a list of goals after listening to their initial recording. In order for these goals to be effective, they should be in S.M.A.R.T. format. The goal of the first practice session should be chosen based on its location in the steps to mastery.

The next, and most important step in the practice cycle is practicing. We have compiled and described thirteen different practice methods to help keep interest and focus during the practice session. 

Practice Strategies


Sometimes it helps to break down a section into its different musical elements: clap only the rhythm, play the pitches on the same rhythm, and/or practice the articulations and dynamics with a steady stream of air.


Your brain is smart, and your hands are dumb! The only element of the music you can change to make it easier is the tempo. Slowing a section down to a tempo that you can play correctly allows you to keep your brain in front of your fingers. Slowly ramp up the speed until you reach performance tempo. REMEMBER TO USE A METRONOME!!!


Take one section of a piece and practice it using different time intervals of work and rest. Here is a sample interval training schedule.

START // 2 min- practice // 20 sec- break // 2 min- practice // 10 sec- break // 1 min- practice // 5 sec- break // 5 min- practice // END


Choose 2-5 different sections either in the same piece or in different pieces of music. Switch from section to section using a set amount of time.

START // 3 min- section 1 // 3 min- section 2 // 3 min- section 3 // 3 min- section 1 // 3 min- section 2 // 3 min- section 3 // END


Only play what you aren’t good at. Find the problem spot and focus your energy on making it sound as good as the rest of the piece. Practice transitioning into and out of the problem spot by starting a measure or two before the error and going a measure or two after.


Have you ever repeated the same mistake over and over and over again? Space your practice time out with frequent short breaks. The break allows you to reset your brain and get rid of any negative loops that you created while you were practicing. Keep the breaks short so that you don’t get distracted by other things.


It doesn’t matter where you are in learning a piece, it is always a good idea to try to get through the whole thing NO MATTER WHAT! If you make mistakes, so what. If you get lost, keep going. Getting to the end puts everything into perspective.


Some of the best practice that has ever been practiced by practicers happened without playing a note. Running through a selection in your head is very useful. You can imagine your sound and the sound of the group in your head while thinking of the fingerings for each note, the rhythms, and the tools of expression. This is especially helpful when memorizing.


If a song if difficult, take it one measure at a time. Thinking about learning the whole piece all at once might be overwhelming because it’s too hard or it’s too much. It’s just music, and you are a musician. Take a breath, and learn it one measure at a time.


Learn your piece section by section. You can separate them by logical musical phrases, label them, and sort them by difficulty. Once sorted, it is easy to see what to practice first!


So many people start learning a piece at the beginning and work linearly throughout the work. Shake it up a bit and start at the end. The last thing that the audience will remember is the end anyway, so make it strong.


If your piece is supposed to be played at 120 BPM, try nailing it at 150! Being able to play your piece at a higher level of difficulty allows you to prepare for performance. During the gig, you might be nervous or there might be weird things going on in the audience. If you have overtrained yourself, you will be able to think ahead and acknowledge these distractions and not make mistakes.


Alternate playing the whole piece and playing a part of the piece. Practicing this way allows you to see how the part functions in the whole, and it helps you to work on thinking ahead and transitioning into problem spots.

The fourth step in the practice cycle is to create a post-practice recording. This recording will show what has been achieved in the practice session. Finally, students reflect on their practice session. Have them come up with three things that they did well and three things that they can improve on. After doing a few reflections, students will become more reflective during their practice session and, in turn, have more effective and efficient sessions. 

There are many variations on the practice cycle out there. This has been the most effective for the students at our school. If you find something that works better for you, let us know by contacting us at or on our website,, or sharing your ideas in the comments below.

Bob and Paul are presenting a method on teaching jazz improvisation through etude writing at Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic on December 20, 10:30-11:30AM, in Meeting Room W179.

Read Bob and Paul’s articles, “Call and Response: Teaching Jazz Improvisation” and “Jazz Drumming 101: Gaining Limb Independence through Lap Drumming.”

About the Authors:

Bob Habersat (R) and Paul Levy (L) are both high school music teachers in Oak Lawn, IL. They are also the creators of, a free and open source website providing resources for the modern musician.

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