A complete guide for improving your ear, memory, technique, and music reading at home, right now. Use your practice time more effectively and become a better musician by trying these 10 things.
1. Practice In A Mirror For Instant Feedback On Technique
Practising in front of a mirror is a great way to get instant feedback on your technique and see what your body may be inadvertently doing while you play.
- Position yourself in front of the largest mirror you have so you can see yourself playing without having to turn or tilt your head
- Play something short and simple that you know well
- Play it again and check out your right arm, then your left, then your shoulders, then your head
- Play it again correcting anything you notice
- Play it again consciously relaxing your shoulders and keeping your neck and spine long
- Ergonomic technique on all instruments includes good posture and keeping your shoulders relaxed and spine as straight as possible. Practising in a mirror will allow you to see any twists or strange angles you may have adopted so you can correct them and keep your body pain free to play better and longer.
2. Listen With Intention To Strengthen Your Song-Learning Muscle
So often we put on music while we’re doing other things and don’t really pay attention. Getting deep into a song and really listening to all the elements with intention is a great way to train your song learning muscles.
- Put on your best headphones or plug in your favourite speakers
- Choose a song you love or something new
- Get comfortable, close your eyes and really listen
- Think about the sound of the instruments individually
- Focus on the groove and the feeling the song evokes
- Listen to the mix and the spread of the instruments
- Focus on the bass frequencies and then the highs
- Play it several times, each time focusing in on a different instrument or sound
- Like in meditation, if you notice your mind wandering just re-focus your attention onto whichever element you were listening to and begin again
3. Practice Learning Songs For Better Memorisation
So often at jams, rehearsals or gigs, someone will throw a new song at you and you’ll find yourself with a very short time to commit it to memory. Getting chord progressions, song forms and lyrics to stick in your memory fast is a skill that all musicians, hobbyist or pro, can benefit from improving.
- Pick a song in the genre of your choice
- Listen through once to get a basic overview, making mental notes of the form (i.e. 4 bar intro, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, 8 bar outro)
- Find the key by determining the 1 chord or ‘home’ key of the song (often the first and last chord of a song) and then experimenting on your instrument to match it
- Go through section by section, learning the chords and form first and not worrying about lines, riffs, or details like hits and stops
- Focus in on your instrument (assuming your instrument is on the track) and now try to match any important riffs or lines you hear. Don’t worry about playing everything note for note, just try to
- Find any lines that sound important and jump out to you as hooks (the lines you would tend to remember and find yourself humming along with)
- Work on each section individually, and when you’re confident with that put it together to play along from beginning to end
4. Improve Your Music Theory and Reading Skill (Beginner or Advanced)
Reading sheet music and understanding written music theory is a great way to expand your understanding of music in general. Whether you feel out of your depth working with ‘schooled’ musicians and the lingo used to describe what they want to hear, or you just want to add another tool to your musical kit, a basic understanding of written music theory will help you become a more well rounded and versatile musician.
This video offers a really clear description of what you’re looking at when you see a piece of sheet music and how it relates to playing piano and this video is specifically aimed at helping guitarists understanding music theory as it relates to the fretboard of the guitar. There are 1000s of videos online you can watch today to get started learning music theory.
If you can already read music proficiently a great way to continue to improve your skills is to find music written for an instrument that isn’t the one you’re going to be playing. Material written for another instrument will have phrases that won’t fall easily under your fingers and there will be unusual jumps and patterns that will challenge your brain and fingers. My bandmate in Tattletale Saints and I used to practice woodwind duets, usually oboe or flute, on acoustic guitar and upright bass to challenge ourselves. You can find free scores to download and play now here and if you’re going to buy a printed book try to support a local music store. Because you’re looking for any sheet music that isn’t for your instrument you’ll likely have great luck in the clearance bins. Find something at a reading level just above where you’re comfortable, for a challenge.
5. Record Yourself Playing To Critique Your Practice
When you’re practising it can be hard to play and also objectively listen to what you’re doing. Recording what you do and listening back gives you the chance to critique your playing and improve.
- Download a voice memo app on your phone or computer (it doesn’t have to be high-quality audio for this unless you’re specifically working on improving tone)
- Record 8-16 bars of the piece or exercise you’re practising
- Listen back and critique what you hear. Be harsh. Is it rushed in places? Are you glossing over notes in phrases that you haven’t quite got under your fingers?
- Isolate areas for improvement and go back and practice those parts, slowly at first and then gradually building up the speed until it matches the piece again
- Record again, critique and repeat
- Recording yourself and critiquing what you hear is like having a teacher in the room with you and highlights the areas of a song or exercise you need to work on.
6. Write A Song To Gain Insight Into Songwriting
Even if it sucks and is something you’d never play to another person, by trying your hand at writing a song you’ll get some insight into the process, and maybe have more empathy for the songwriters in your life!
- Pick a topic for your song (use a random word generator to find a noun as a jumping off point if you’re stuck)
- Write down all the images that come to mind when you think about that word
- Now come up with a simple chord progression (it could be as simple as just moving between 2 chords: 1 and 5
- Hum along, improvising melody lines until you find one you like as a starting point
- Write your first lyric line and using those words try improvising different melodies against your chosen chord progression
- This song doesn’t have to be good, and it doesn’t ever have to see the light of day, but experimenting with songwriting gives you glimpse into that world and probably some idea of how hard it is to actually write good ones!
If you want to delve deeper check out online courses by songwriting guru, Pat Pattison.
7. Download a Metronome App To Improve Your Timing
The difference between playing and actually practising is using a tuner, recording device, or metronome to hold yourself accountable to either pitch, accuracy or timing. Playing freely and focusing on really making the music sing is great, and there’s a time in every rehearsal when you are going to want to turn off the metronome or tuner and just play, but a good portion of your practice time should be spent holding yourself accountable to something.
- Download a metronome app
- Choose a piece of music and decide on a starting tempo that is manageable for you
- Play along with the metronome and really listen to make sure you’re staying in time
- If it’s too hard to keep up or you’re making a lot of mistakes, slow it down 5-10 bpm
- Once you can play the section or piece all the way through easily, bump the metronome up 1 or 2 bpm. By increasing the speed in very small increments each time it is surprisingly easy to build the speed of a piece quickly
- For a challenge, cut the speed of the metronome in half and have it click on only beats 1 and 3, or 2 and 4 (depending on the style of music)
- For an extra challenge cut the speed in half again and have it click only once per bar, starting on beat 1 and then shifting where you start playing to try it on only beat 2, beat 3 and then beat 4.
- Practising with a metronome at home will make you a better musician overall and a far better member of a group once you are back playing with other people.
8. Try Singing and Playing For Increased Coordination
Assuming your mouth is free and you don’t play a woodwind or brass instrument, learning to sing and play at the same time is a great way to improve coordination (and maybe make yourself more hireable as a backing singer too!).
- Choose a song you like and start by learning a short section on whichever instrument comes most naturally to you, voice or your instrument
- Switch to the other part and learn the same section on that
- Practice both parts separately until you can play them confidently and without mistakes
- Take one bar at a time and start slowly, putting both parts together
- Add each bar until you get through the whole section
- Put on a metronome at a slow speed and practice doing it in time
- Gradually increase the speed as you become more comfortable
- Play along with a recording of the song at full speed (if you have one)
- Playing and singing at the same time forces you to really learn both parts inside out and challenges your brain and body to coordinate two things.
9. Transcribe Something To Improve Your Ear
Transcribing melodies is the next step after learning songs by ear. Transcribing doesn’t have to be done from a recording of the instrument you play, the main thing is to find a melody, figure out what it is, and then learn to play it.
- Choose a short melody that you can pick out from a recording easily
- Start by humming along with it, learning the notes and rhythm
- Once you can hum along with a section, find the starting note of the melody line on your instrument (drummers might want to try this exercise on another instrument like piano or guitar)
- Press play and hum along with the first 2 notes, then hit pause
- Find the second note on your instrument
- Start the section again, this time stopping after the first 3 or 4 notes
- Hum and then find the first 4 notes on your instrument
- Keep doing this note by note, or phrase by phrase, until you have the whole section figured out
- Press play on the recording and play along
- If you’re really struggling to hear certain parts at full speed you can use a program like this one to slow the audio down without changing the pitch to make it easier to determine what the lines are
- Vocalists a great transcription idea is to choose a vocal song by a singer you admire and learn the phrasing, breathing, pronunciation, and inflections of the performance exactly. Learning the way someone else performs a song is a great way to try different rhythms and phrasing that you might not naturally use. Learning songs sung in a stylistic way that you’re not comfortable with or maybe wouldn’t ultimately even want to perform can help broaden the palette of colours and sounds you have to draw from in your own interpretations of songs.
10. Learn Something Completely Different To Stoke Your Creativity
The most boring, great musicians I’ve known, are the ones who spend 100% of their time thinking only about music and practising alone – especially in only one style. If you’re technically very proficient but don’t have any creativity or anything unique to say, there will be an inevitable limit for the kinds of gigs you’ll get and other musicians who’ll want to work with you.
- Write a short story
- Use imovie (or another editing program) to create a video album of your favourite family photos
- Learn to draw
- Learn to make pasta from scratch
- Do anything to fuel the creative fires in a way that isn’t music
- The best players are the ones who are dedicated to their craft and work hard but are also well-rounded humans who have other interests in their life. Find new ways to inspire creativity in your life and become a better musician as a result.
Vanessa McGowan is a Fender and Aguilar endorsee originally from New Zealand, currently based in Nashville TN. She plays bass and sings backing vocals for a wide range of touring artists including Sugarland, Jennifer Nettles, Brandy Clark and Tattletale Saints.