Practice Session, part 6: Review

Review: Time to Revisit, Reflect, and Plan.

The sixth and final part of a productive practice session wraps everything up and puts a bow on it.

If you’re just starting this blog series, be sure to read the OVERVIEW and posts about the five other sections. The links are below.

  1. Warm up.
  2. Scales & Technique.
  3. Etudes.
  4. Repertoire.
  5. Improvisation.
  6. Review, warm-down, reflecting on goals and planning for the next practice session.

If we are thinking about a 30 minute practice session, the sixth part is minutes 28-30. At this point in your practicing, you are starting to get tired and your mind is ready for a break. Hold on for two more minutes… you still have some important work to do.

If we continue the analogy of the six-drawer cabinet, there are three items in this thin drawer at the bottom of the practice cabinet.

  1. review tricky “woodshedding” spots from repertoire or etudes
  2. warm down
  3. make a mental note of accomplishments and what needs attention next time

Now is the time to review any tricky spots that you were woodshedding in Part 4: Repertoire. If you are working to memorize your music, now is the time to test your memory. New advances in neuroscience are showing that interval training is critical to long term memory. Spacing out the learning in longer intervals leads to better memory storage, according to the theory of “Spaced Repetition.” Because you worked on repertoire pieces in the middle of your practice, you have had a little time in between. This is a good first interval. Simply go back to the hardest sections of your lesson materials and try them one or two more times. You’ll hit these places again in your next practice session to continue the spaced repetition.

Depending on how you are feeling, you may want to do a gentle warm-down. I feel the need to play low notes and slurs when my embouchure is tight from playing piccolo. Brass players usually need a warm-down time.

Before you end this practice session, think about what you were able to accomplish. Thank yourself for taking the time to practice. Acknowledge the good work and the progress. If you tackled something particularly hard, give yourself a mental pat on the back. Think about what you need to focus on for the next practice session. Planning for the next practice session will give you a head start on item #1 (Warm up, including goal setting).

Finally, allow for some incubation time. Several studies have shown that creative insights and new skills favor a “prepared mind.” (Link here to Seifert, Meyer, Davidson study.) Make sure you take a break every 30 minutes. That means you need to leave the practice room. Get a drink of water, take a walk, play a game. Perhaps the best thing you can do for your long term memory is get plenty of sleep. It seems that the brain is working on the music even when you are asleep. Have you ever heard the music you’ve been practicing in your dreams? I know I’m ready for a recital when my piece is playing as the background music in my dreams.

I hope this seven part series on the structure of a 30 minute practice session was helpful for you. Now, go practice!

Practice Session, part 5: Improvisation

Improvisation: Beyond the Lesson Materials.

The fifth part of a practice session should include music that you love.

If you’re just starting this blog series, be sure to read the OVERVIEW and posts about the four other sections. The links are below.

  1. Warm up.
  2. Scales & Technique.
  3. Etudes.
  4. Repertoire.
  5. Improvisation and revisiting old material.
  6. Review, warm-down, reflecting on goals and planning for the next practice session.

The fifth part of a well-organized practice time will help you to reconnect to your inner musician and begin to wrap up the practice session. If we are considering a 30 minute practice interval, the fifth part will include minutes 25-28.

If you’re not a jazz musician, you may feel reluctant to add improvisation to your practice, but I assure you that it’s just as important as scales and etudes.

Improvisation here is defined broadly. I’m using the term to mean any music that you play away from the page or which reconnects you to your love of music. You can literally “improvise” what you want to do for these three minutes.

Improvisation in this broad sense may include

  1. made up songs
  2. figuring out songs you know
  3. sight reading
  4. playing “non-classical” music
  5. returning to pieces you have passed but make you happy

One of my favorite made up songs is the “How I Feel Today Song.” For this exercise, simply ask yourself how you feel in this moment. Perhaps you’re tired and annoyed. Or maybe you’re feeling joyful and busy. Direct those feelings into you fingertips. Choose a key (or not) and let your fingers move in any way they wish. You may be surprised by what you hear. I’ll give more ideas about improvising in a future blog post, but here are a few more suggestions:

  • Without using music, figure out a favorite song– this could be a simple folk song like “Twinkle Twinkle” or a song you hear on the radio like “Let It Go.”
  • Begin playing from sheet music but after a couple of measures, continue by making up your own music in the same style and key.
  • Play along with a favorite recording, not necessarily with the melody. Pretend you are a backup singer or someone in the band.

This part of the practice session is also where you will want to include some sight reading. Everyone benefits from sight reading practice, though “practicing sigh reading” sounds like an oxymoron. Adult students seem to get the most benefit out of regular sight reading practice. Here’s some of the music in my husband’s sight reading stack today:


piano books for sight reading


These three minutes of practice, offers the opportunity to play music that you might not work on in a lesson. Many of my flute students enjoy playing pop songs, tunes from musicals, church music, or folk music from all around the world. Many collections of pop music will include a play-along CD and these can be lots of fun. Although this fun music should not compromise the time you spend on repertoire for your lesson, it is important to always play something you enjoy. These are some fun books I have in my collection:

fun music


This fifth “drawer” of the practice cabinet will also include pieces you have played in the past and love. This could be ensemble music that makes you happy or repertoire music that you enjoy. You won’t play these pieces for your weekly lesson because you have moved past this music, but in this section of your practice, it doesn’t matter. It can be gratifying to return to music you played in the past and realize that now you have better mastery of them.

Be sure to reconnect with music that makes you happy every day. Awaken the creative spark inside by getting off the printed sheet music. Remind yourself of the progress that you have made when you are revisiting old pieces. The fifth part of your practice session is the perfect place to improvise with the music you play.

When your time is up, continue to the sixth and final “drawer” REVIEW.

Practice Session, Part 3: Etudes

Etudes, or study pieces, are the third element of a productive practice session.

If you haven’t read the blog posts OVERVIEW, WARM UP, and SCALES, you may want to start with those before reading about part #3.

OK, so there are six parts to every good practice session:

  1. Warm up.
  2. Scales, short technical exercises.
  3. Etudes.
  4. Repertoire.
  5. Improvisation and revisiting old material.
  6. Review, warm-down, reflecting on goals and planning for the next practice session.

Our bodies and minds are warmed up and our fingers have worked on some fast, but short, technical exercises or scales. If our practice session is 30 minutes in length, you will want to spend about 6 minutes on etudes. If you’re watching the clock, the third part will be minutes 7-13. Remember, these are ballpark numbers and you may need to adjust your practice session if you need more work in one area than another.

By the way, the word etude comes from the French word “to study.” I think it is a lovely, elegant word.

practice "drawers"Continuing the drawer analogy I have used in the other posts, the third drawer (orange in the picture) is slightly larger than the second drawer. In this drawer we find study pieces. These etudes are longer than the two or three line exercises we worked on in the scale section. Depending on your level, the etudes could be anywhere from a half page to four pages in length. Etudes are different from repertoire pieces because they are learned in a shorter time frame, usually 1-4 weeks. These pieces are played at lessons but rarely in a performance. Etudes are often included in volumes with a variety of key signatures. Many etudes are written with a specific technical goal in mind, such as octave practice or double tonguing. Repertoire pieces, on the other hand, are long term projects and are often performed in recitals or contests. We’ll discuss repertoire pieces in the next part of our practice.

Here are some of the books in my etudes “drawer:”

etudes for the third part of a productive practice session

some of my etudes

Etudes bridge the work between scales and repertoire. Can I be honest with you? I hated etudes when I was in college. They felt like drudgery. I wanted to skip to the repertoire pieces that I loved. But old age brings wisdom and I now know that practicing etudes helps with the repertoire work. Etudes can be entertaining too! My younger flute students like using Irish music for their etudes. They are pleasant for everyone to listen to and because Irish music is very tonal, students can immediately know if there is a wrong note. An added bonus is that Irish tunes are a blast at fast speeds, providing motivation for working with the metronome. Every instrument has standard etudes. For flutists, it’s Anderson, Altes, and Berbiguier. Please leave a note in the comment section below with the best-loved (or hated!) etudes for your instrument.

And now, you’re ready for the largest chunk of time: REPERTOIRE.

Practice Session, Part 1: Warm Up

warm upWarm Up

This blog post is the second in a seven part series about the structure of a typical practice session.

In the blog post “Overview,” I outlined the six elements that should be a part of every practice session. You can think of these parts like a chest of drawers. Each drawer is a different size. Working from the top down, the drawers are

  1. Warm up.
  2. Scales, short technical exercises.
  3. Etudes.
  4. Repertoire.
  5. Improvisation and revisiting old material.
  6. Review, warm-down, reflecting on goals and planning for the next practice session.

In every 30 minute practice session, you will want to spend about 2 minutes on #1: “Goal setting and warm up.” This part of the practice is important because it wakes up the mind, body and ear.

First, we warm up the brain.

I am in the habit of thinking about what I need to accomplish in the practice room before I arrive. Ideally, I have created new goals at the end of my previous practice session (practice item #6), but if not, the beginning of a new practice session is a good time to think about my goals. Many students find that a notebook can be very helpful for writing down this kind of stuff. (Unfortunately, I seem to lose notebooks faster than I can write in them….) The short term goals you set at the beginning of practice should be attainable in the amount of time set aside. For instance, you may want to work out tricky passages in your new solo and increase the tempo of the minor scales. Your goals will be different every day. Try to keep them realistic so that when your practice is finished, you feel like you have attained at least some of your goals.

The first thing I do when entering the practice room is silence my cell phone. I know from experience that a beep or buzz on my phone easily devolves into checking my email, then a quick glance at the weather, a reply to a text.., and then my practice time is over before I’ve played a note.

I consider how much uninterrupted time I have. Sometimes, I even put practice time in my online calendar to truly set it aside. When I begin, I tell myself that everything outside of the practice room will still be there for me when I’m finished. I try to quiet my mind and tell myself that this is the highest and best use of my time. If I’m feeling really distracted, I will take a moment to jot down a quick to-do list. Writing things down unburdens my mind because I don’t have to worry about forgetting.

As I put my flute together, I put the pieces together mindfully, grateful for the beautiful instrument and my ability to play it. I like to approach each practice session with a “beginner’s mind” because it allows me to stay open and curious. Judgement and negativity are not helpful.

This is a good place in your practice session to try out some of the concentration exercises I explained in a previous post.

Next, we bring attention to the body.

When I was younger, I didn’t need to do much to warm up my body. Now that I’m older, I find physical warm ups to be very helpful. If I’m feeling tight in my neck, I will make gentle circles with my head. Sometimes it’s my shoulders or hands that need to be stretched. Wherever there is pain or tightness, I’ll take a moment to move in mays that release the tension. While stretching, I also bring attention to my breath and begin to deepen the inhale and exhale.

This is a good place in the practice session to check your posture. Our goal is to always move freely without pain. The Alexander Technique has been very helpful to me in understanding how to use my body efficiently. My friend Lea Pearson has studied the Alexander Technique and wrote Body Mapping for Flutists: What Every Flutist Needs to Know About the Body. I highly recommend this book.

Finally, we wake up the ear.

Because I play a wind instrument, the first sounds I make on the instrument are long tones. It’s important for wind players to pay attention to embouchure, breath, and resonance from the very beginning. (If you are a string player, pianist, or vocalist, leave a comment below telling me what your first sounds are when you start practicing.) While playing long tones, I think about my posture, vibrato, intonation, beginnings of notes, releases, dynamics, and tone color. This begins to awaken my ear. Throughout, I ask myself “Is this the best sound I can make today?” I use a variety of tone exercises– the brain needs novelty to stay engaged– but I have my favorites too. I enjoy listening to my tone warm ups with my eyes closed. This helps me to really open the ear without any visual distractions. (I write about the difference between hearing and listening in this blog post.)

All these warm up activities happen in the first two minutes of practice! (Actually, some of the planning and goal setting can be done on your way to the practice room.)

Once the mind is focused, the body is moving well, and the ears are open, it’s time to get the fingers flying! Continue reading part 2 “Scales & Technique.”


Practice Session: Overview

Practice Session Structure


In this seven part series, I will discuss how to structure a typical practice session. This will offer a solid guideline for what things should be a part of every practice session and how much time to spend on each element. In future blog posts, I will explain each item in detail. Before we get into the details, let’s take a look at the basic structure and parts of a productive practice session.

practice "drawers"Let’s think of a practice session like a chest of drawers. Each drawer is a different size, relative to the time you will spend on that element. We begin at the top and work our way down. As we open each drawer, we find sheet music inside. The first drawer is thin and contains a notebook and ideas for tone exercises. Drawer #2 is a little bit larger and is full of little technical exercises and note cards with scales on them. Drawer #3 is just a little bit bigger still and when you open it, you see books of etudes. We’ll open up the drawers and examine each of their contents in future blog posts, but for now let’s consider what the dresser looks like from the outside. The dresser has six drawers of various sizes. The size of the drawer represents the approximate time for the material in it.

Here are the six elements you will probably want to include in every practice session with suggested time for each item. During every practice, you will want to open each drawer and  choose something to play. Let’s consider a practice session of 30 minutes in length:

  1. Goal setting and warm-up. (2 minutes)
  2. Scales, short technical exercises. (5 minutes)
  3. Etudes. (6 minutes)
  4. Repertoire. (12 minutes)
  5. Improvisation and revisiting old material. (3 minutes)
  6. Review, warm-down, reflecting on goals and planning for the next practice session. (2 minutes)

Here’s a pie chart showing the time ratios (notice the colors are different from the drawers above. I can’t figure out how to fix that…):

pie chart of practice elements

pie chart


And a bar chart that indicates the structure:

practice session structure

bar chart


The bar chart makes it easy to see that the repertoire work comes in the middle of the practice session, after the brain and body are warmed up but before fatigue sets in. This is the optimal place for hard work. By the way, this bar chart looks like the workout program on a treadmill. Practicing isn’t much different than athletic training!

If you have other items to practice (orchestral excerpts, extended techniques, etc.), find the closest category and include them. I’ll give more ideas for things to include in the six basic categories in future blog posts.

As you move closer to a performance or competition, you may need to devote more time to the repertoire and less time to repertoire. These guidelines are intended to be flexible suggestions. However, they offer a way to structure the practice session in a careful way so that nothing gets overlooked.

If you practice for longer than 30 minutes, you may want to consider breaking your practice into several shorter sessions. After every 30 minutes of playing, you will want to take a short break. Stand up and walk around the room, get a drink of water, stretch. The brain can only handle short bouts of concentrated activity before becoming worn out. Additionally, spacing out your practice helps long term memory. The blog post How We Learn talks more about this phenomenon. Two thirty minute practice sessions with a break in between is better for learning than one un-interrupted hour.

Links are here for more explanation about the six elements of practice:

Part #1 WARM UP


Part #3 ETUDES



Part #6 REVIEW