The 7 Pillars of Effective Practice — How to Perfect the Art of Musical Growth

Nathan Phelps
9 min readDec 22, 2020

We’re told consistency is key, but if you’re practicing without direction — i.e. practicing ineffectively, you may spend years progressing at a rate that is exponentially slower than what you could achieve with mindful practice.

There is often an inverse relationship between responsibility and the hours we have available to practice. It gets harder and harder to find time to improve our playing as life gets busier, so the need to practice effectively becomes increasingly more important as those precious hours decrease in number.

So how can we ensure that we’re extracting as much as we can from each minute of practice? How can we separate “good practice” from “bad practice”? Can we define guidelines that restrain our mindlessness while still allowing room for customization, creativity, and joy?

This post is the beginning of an exploration of these questions — into defining the parameters under which you can reliably achieve sessions when you feel “on” and are deeply satisfied with your day’s practice. The sessions that are motivating and rewarding — both psychologically and directly via a measurable impact on your ability to play.

Before we begin, the following thoughts are under the context of private practice as opposed to performance practice. While there are obvious overlaps between the two, I am not discussing the mental preparation and habits that are involved in successfully traversing performance anxiety, auditions, gigs, etc. In other words, this isn’t about performing for people, it’s about the woodshed.

Pillar #1: Creating specific goals is the most effective way to rapidly achieve musical growth.

The best practice has a purpose that you’ve outlined in advance. Every exercise you create for your practice needs to tie to a goal. Think of each practice session like building a pyramid, with your desired outcome at the top. Each block is strategically positioned.

Chad LB, a fantastic saxophone player and a somehow even better teacher, establishes 4 overarching goals for each month. Outlining these at the beginning of each month is the first step in providing structure.

Why choose multiple goals instead of one? Because having a variety of goals reduces practice fatigue and burnout. Part of maintaining consistency is finding ways to avoid boredom. Some days you’ll be more motivated toward one goal than another, and the idea is to prepare for that in advance by coming up with a variety of goals that genuinely interest you.

It’s the same reason people read multiple books simultaneously. I’m usually reading some sort of academic book, a fantasy or fiction novel, something related to music, and another book related to any of my other hobbies like cooking or entrepreneurship — that way I can pick up whatever I am most into on any given day.

But this only matters if you can set goals that motivate you, so what do effective goals look like? They’re flexible, actionable, and collectively work toward an even bigger, more intrinsic goal.

Let’s say these were my goals for January:

January Goals

  • Improve Mixolydian Chops within a Modal Funk Context
  • Improve Ability to Play Behind the Beat.
  • Be able to “Hear” Common Pop Chord Changes
  • Expand Funk Rhythmic Vocabulary

Notice how all of these could be grouped under a common goal like: Get better at modern funk and pop.

Now, before any practice session, I can customize my session to any of those goals. Let’s say I really wanted to expand my funk rhythm vocabulary one day. I could build this type of practice session:

  • Identify two new chords that are common in funk (e.g. 9 and 13 chords) and run through their block or arpeggio shapes in all 12 keys — 30 minutes
  • Transcribe one 4-bar funk lick you love — 15 minutes
  • Play the lick repeatedly and focus intently on tone and try to match the feel, timing, and sound. Record yourself to ensure accuracy and compare to original — 15 minutes
  • Transpose that lick into 3 other keys — 15 minutes
  • Write 2 licks that are in the spirit of the lick you learned. One in the same key and one in a different one — 15 minutes.

See how each timed period has a purpose related to the goal, which is related to an even bigger goal? That’s the key.

Pillar #2: Distraction-free environments foster an effective practice session.

The average person loses 2.1 hours to distraction each day, is only on task for 11 minutes before losing focus, and takes around 25 minutes to get back on task after losing focus [*].

The time we lose to distraction each day is more than enough for a practice session, so how can we push back against distraction?

Here’s what helps me:

  • Make tea or coffee (if that’s your vice).
  • Drink water beforehand and keep some on your desk.
  • Clean your desk and practice environment. Ideally, this is a separate space from where you sleep or work, but make do with what you have.
  • Have your metronome out and ready.
  • Put all electronics on airplane mode / disable all notifications. This usually isn’t possible when you’re transcribing, but I like to put my phone in airplane mode since I can still use a metronome and record without the internet.
  • If you are using your computer for your practice, close all other windows and programs.
  • Have a journal or notebook to record your progress against your goals.
  • Use your phone or get a timer for each practice “block”.
  • After you set the timer for your next block, resist the urge to check the timer. Try and get lost in each exercise until the timer rings and tells you to switch.
  • Check off each period as you complete them.
  • After your session, examine how you did during this session and plan your next one in advance — that way you don't have to think before you practice next time.

Pillar #3: Objectively analyzing your playing is critical to success.

Getting better at analyzing our playing is one of the best tools we have for making consistent progress.

Analyzing your playing has two components:

  • Aural attentiveness — knowing what to listen to in your playing. These are things like rhythmic accuracy, articulation, tone, phrasing, etc. We recognize these implicitly when we hear “good musicians”, but applying that same standard to your own playing is a skill.
  • Ability to tie what you’ve noticed back to your goals. Once you’ve recognized where your playing falls short, use that as your foundation for honing in your practice.

You’re the only one you can trust to tell you it’s not sounding like how you want it.” — Chick Corea

We must become our own best critics because no one — not even our teachers— have the time to always be there in the practice room. In essence, we must become our own teachers. We must be stern without being judgmental. Helpful without being hurtful.

This is an entire world I plan on digging into in future posts, but two of the most important tools we have to analyze our own playing are recording devices and loop pedals.

After you learn a lick and digest it, record yourself playing it. What about that lick is different than the recording you learned it from? Should you be playing softer? Is your rhythm on? Are you accenting in the correct places? Go deep into the nuance and then build what you’d like to improve into your current or next session.

Pillar #4: The best practice is customized to your goals and playing — it’s possible to be focused without being rigid.

Image via the NY Public Library:

Similar to what Chad LB says in his video above — a practice routine doesn’t mean drilling the same exact things day in and day out.

Goals change, motivation ebbs and flows, and your ability to play changes — all of which must factor into what you choose to practice.

Customization should be built into every practice session and be based on your current goals and abilities.

Don’t practice something because someone else did. Everyone has their own goals and has different musical strengths and weaknesses.

Practice something because you need to in order to sound how you want to.

Pillar #5: Use timed sprints, deadlines, and psychology to practice smarter.

Parkinson’s Law is the idea that we extend any task to the limits of the time we established for it. If we say we have a month to write an essay, we use the whole month.

This is why it is so hard to “get ahead”. There isn’t pressure because the timeline has already been established. What can we do to defeat this, or better yet, how can we take advantage of it?

There are three main ways:

  • Set timelines that match the pacing and goals we have.
  • Use accountability to our advantage.
  • Work in “sprints”.

Breaking down our sessions into short bursts of time is one of the best ways to constrain our practice into something more effective, and having a teacher or accountability partner set recurring meetings and goals for each lesson is a great way to wield Parkinson’s Law to our advantage.

If you know you have to have a piece of music memorized because you’re playing it for your teacher in two weeks, it’s much easier to get motivated than if you are just planning on “learning the piece next”.

Think critically about what you want to achieve and break it down into specific tasks with deadlines that match the speed at which you want to progress.

This will take a bit of management to find your sweet spot, but finding the right pace for your life is a foundational component of effective practice.

Pillar #6: Mindful over mindless practice, always.

Before I go on about how mindless playing is pointless, keep in mind I am talking about this within the context of practice. Practice is the time when you expressly focus on expanding your ability to play an instrument.

There are times and places for simply enjoying your instrument. It’s a great way to wind down a good practice session, it is essential in songwriting, and it is where a lot of the joy and spontaneity within playing music arises.

The issue is that so many of us just sit down and play without any thought to what or why we’re doing it, and then we practice poorly for 5 years until we inevitably get baffled and frustrated by our lack of progress.

How can you expect to improve without pushing yourself? It’s ludicrous to think that improving your ability wouldn’t require focused thought.

And yet, countless musicians play the same songs and scale drills for years without questioning why they are stalling out. We must reimagine our approach to practice as a mindful and focused period of time.

Pillar #7: Instead of digging deeper holes, always seek to break new ground.

On a similar note, an easy way to get into the mindset of practice is to think about it as a consistent act of breaking new ground. Effective practicing lies at the edge of your current abilities.

Or put another way: if you sound good you aren’t practicing.

Unless you’re preparing for a performance (again, a different kind of practice), then you should be doing new things on your instrument, each and every day. New usually doesn’t sound good, and that’s the point.

Use this mindset in each and every one of your practice sessions, and even if you go in without a plan you will walk out a better musician.

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Nathan Phelps

Nashville-Based Writer & Musician —Writing about practicing music and whatever else comes to mind.