The specific practice material you work on is going to depend on your instrument as well as your own personal goals, but as someone wiser than me said on the internet: The value of the plan is in the planning. Whatever your goals, here are some tips on making that plan and sticking to it when it comes to your practice time.

Write It Down

Clarifying your goals is the first step toward achieving them. Simple, but true. Do you want to get better at a particular style of music or do you want to want to hone in on specific techniques? In either case, write them down and start divvying up your practice time to prioritize and address each subject.

As a general guide, try spending the beginning portion on fundamentals, such as scales and exercises, then get into the more musical material. If you're a bassist, for example, and you have an hour to practice, try allocating:

  • - 10 minutes for left-hand studies
  • - 10 minutes for right-hand studies
  • - 20 minutes for learning a particular piece of music
  • - 20 minutes on jamming freely over that piece

By planning ahead and budgeting the time, you'll be more likely to address everything you want to accomplish and more readily identify your strengths and weaknesses. Then readjust your budget.

Schedule

Whether you're a college music student, a hobbyist, or a working professional, keeping a practice schedule will give you a feeling of accomplishment. That said, the only way to get it done is to look at your to-do list or daily agenda and make time for practice. Commit to it the same way you schedule time for work, going to the gym or your kid's after-school or weekend activities.

My old college professor used to say, “twenty minutes of practice is better than nothing," and I'll add that 20 minutes of focused practice is better than an hour of lazy, distracted practice. Sometimes it can feel like work to carve out this time, but I guarantee, once you start practicing regularly, you'll be having fun and glad you did it.

Think Big Picture

If you're learning a piece of music, decide: are you trying to be able to play this note-for-note straight through, or are you trying to get the idea of it and integrate it into your own playing? There's value in both, but knowing what you 're trying to accomplish can help you economize with your time.

Also, are you practicing for the fun of it, or are you preparing for a performance? If it's the latter, you'll likely want to build in time where you run straight through your material without stopping. You won't be able to stop when you perform so you'll want to practice this. I find putting on some sort of rhythm track, a metronome if nothing else, helps keep an ongoing sense of time, which will immediately let you know if you goof up.

Optimize Your Practice Space

Whether you like things spic and span or everything laid out where you can see it, optimize your space to optimize your time and minimize setup.

This also means minimizing distractions. Someone is going to call; the doorbell will ring or something “urgent" will demand your attention just as you're getting ready to hammer out that solo you've been wanting to nail. But there's a big difference between urgent and important, and the overlap is more an exception than the rule. Chances are, whatever it is, it can wait another 20 minutes until you're done with your practice time. So close the door, turn the ringer off and concentrate.

Be mindful of YouTube as well. While there are many great resources there, it's all too easy to end up consuming video rather than making music.

Listen!

Sometimes listening can be the best form of practice. Absorbing an artist's phrasing, touch, tone -- these are things you may not notice until you sit down and actually pay attention. Sometimes it's not the notes you have to listen for, either. Especially in improvisation, the rhythm can sometimes tell you more about what the artist is thinking than the actual notes. Listen on the best speakers or headphones you can get. Laptop and tablet speakers disguise a great deal of detail in music, and it's always satisfying to listen to great music on a great sound system.

Just to give this piece a holistic kind of wrap up: Make sure you know why you're practicing. The point of practicing is to make music, and music is meant to fun. Plus, it's often best with other people. There is so much you can learn from making music with others, and you'll make more memories than you would practicing alone. Who knows, maybe it'll sound good, and you'll find you can make a living off of it.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Bill Worrell

Bill Worrell is the lead guitarist for the band America. He holds a degree in classical guitar performance from California State Northridge. Additionally, he is a music journalist and records out of his home studio in Nashville, TN.