What It Means to Practice Musically + 3 Exercises for Smarter Practice

“You have to think beyond the notes.”

Being shown this earlier in my musical journey would have made all the difference.

Some of you may have been taught this, and if that’s the case, fantastic. For others like myself, I’m not so sure it was ever ingrained, and that’s exactly why you should take this to heart.

The idea is simple: make your practicing musical at every point — even the most academic exercises. It’s harder than you think to do this consistently, and this is especially true for intermediate to advanced players.

Let’s briefly cover what practicing musically looks like, and then we’ll talk through 3 exercises you can take and use in your own practice.

What does practicing musically look like?

I first heard this phrase maybe three years ago, and I’ve been playing for 16 years. Perhaps I’d heard it, but I didn’t take it to heart until recently.

It’s easy to put practicing in one box and playing in another. And while there is a lot of good in that, I think people learning instruments build that divide up a little too high.

Practicing should be mindful. It should be stretching your limits — often by thinking more than just relaxing and playing — but, that does not mean your technical exercises, namely scales, arpeggios, chord shapes, rhythmic drills, and ear training have to be separated from a musical context — or perhaps more generally, a form of musical expression.

For example, when learning a new scale, yes, you need to learn the scale degrees and shapes, but you can play those shapes with feel as you learn. them. You can play those shapes with pocket. You can make each note breathe and play them dynamically or place accents in interesting places.

Another example, you can learn your diatonic arpeggios and run them in order, but as soon as you can, you should take those and instead run them through a progression that sounds like a song.

Here’s the bottom line:

Whenever you’re practicing technical drills, your goal should be able to play them as musically as possible while you’re drilling them AND apply them in a more musical context as soon as you can.

This helps you apply theory to the entire point of practicing, which is to play better music, right?

With that in mind, here are three ways you can use this idea in your practice, starting now:

#1 Get the shape(s) first but break out of them as early as possible.

Think of chord and scale shapes as a tool for access and understanding, but the sooner you can start bastardizing them musically, the better.

For example, as soon as you can play the melodic minor scale in order (1–2-b3–4–5–6–7) and feel like the shape has clicked, start making up patterns like (2-b3–1–4–5–2–6–7-b3), etc. with the aim of creating succinct and musical phrases.

#2 Start with the scale or arpeggio on an unusual beat and try to make it sound like a lick.

On a similar note, break away from just quarter notes and eighth notes starting on the one for your drills. Offbeats are fun, and being purposeful with your accents helps here, too.

#3 Don’t over-prioritize speed

Speed is important but is far from the goal. Before upping the tempo of your metronome on the scale, try improvising licks that focus on dynamics, voice leading, phrasing, feel, pocket, and all of the other richness that good music has.

When you approach technical exercises this way, you’ll do a better and faster job at breaking down the barriers between things like scales and chords and the music they make up.

That’s it! If you made it this far, then you’ll dig my newsletter. It’s all about getting better at music faster.

So if that’s something you want to do, then join us here.

Good luck!

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

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Nathan Phelps

Nathan Phelps

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

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