How to practice music and memorize music
There's a single key ingredient in elevating your musicianship: the amount of time you spend playing well. Sounds utterly simplistic, but it's undeniably true. And to play really well—to find your best mastery over a piece—some memorization is usually required, and this is generally true even for those who are exceptionally good at reading music.
it follows, to play your best, you'll need to explore music memorization, directly experience its many benefits, and regularly use memorization to foster deep accomplishments and technical achievements.
If you like the results you'll probably find yourself eagerly motivated to continue using those memory/memorization techniques on a regular basis ... and you may develop an interest in trying other practice techniques that promote quickly and significant improvenets. In doing so you'll learn faster, develop more confidence, and achieve a higher level of musical mastery.
So I encourage you to earnestly explore music memorization under the guidance of an encouraring instructor who consistantly imparts the study skills that foster easily attained memorization, so you don't spend time struggling and muddling. This will take some trust and effort, because the path may be considerably diffenent that how you'd naturally approach things. Plus it requires patience and practicing in short frequent sessions until you can "lock in" the required understanding and/or new physical skills.
When you encounter an effective tool that resonates with you, one that really gives you footholds where you feel like you can quickly rekindle and build upon what you learned the day before, make it a regular part of your practice.
For most of us, the aquistion of new physical skills is a largely unfamilar territory.Don't immediately dismiss techniques that fail for you. First make sure you thoroughly understand and have correctly employed them. If so, be willing to let them go and rely on the tools that work for you. But also be willing retry various tools again in the future.
The biggest mistake it using an ineffective approaches and concluding that you don't have what it takes.
The opposing view
Many teachers view memorization and reading music notation as polar opposites. Instructors who teach primarily via notation often discourage memorization—as if there's some fundamental conflict between the two approaches. This is usually based on a benign but misguided belief that the student's reading skills won't develop in an atmosphere that also encourages memorization and learning by ear.
Now it stands to reason, if a teacher lacks proficiency in memorization, or learning by ear, or in improvisation and creativity (three skills consistently weak among many classical musicians) he or she will be unable to effectively teach those skills and perhaps entirely avoid the topics, or declare them unimportant ... or harmful.
But there's no argument, the world's great classical soloists are excellent readers and yet outstanding in their ability to memorize and play by heart. Both skills are important. One strength needn't diminish the other. Ideally they work in tandem, so when practicing the student uses the tool best suited for the task and situation. As artist Marc Chagall said, "Work in whatever medium likes you at the moment."
Taking the proper steps toward memorization can make an astonishing difference in how fast you learn. They'll help in refining your musical dexterity and expression, in sustaining your interest, bolstering your confidence, strengthening your overall connection with music, and deepening the joy music brings to your own life and the lives of others who love music, because they'll love hearing you play and possibly playing with you.
So let's get started in understanding the ways and rewards of memorization, and look squarely at the investment and requirements: mainly self-disipline, tenacity and temporarily delayed gratification.
Music study skills
This article will continue presently a number of methods that will accelerate your progress and artistry through music memorization.
For contrast, it will also illustrate approaches t likely to prove of little value. These points are presented to help to pinpoint the common pitfalls, so you can avoid them, and to keep you focused on proven methods and approaches that you discover as valuable for yourself.
Here's a synopsis of points made below:
- Speed is an essential ingredient in establishing deep reliable memorization—it's a particularly important tool when attempting to embed kinesthetic memory, the type of body memory often called "muscle memory."
- Speed can easily appear to be an insurmountable obsticle. Trying to go fast too soon will cause you to tighten up physically and emotionally, and ultimatley lose control or play with little regard to accuracy and finesse. This is particularly true when trying to play large sections fast.
- Too add speed effectively and successfull you'll need to work on small sections, bits so small that you can accurately and easily speed them up while remaining relaxed. Often this means looping just three or eight notes! You can easily speed up and memorize small loops. Not so with large loops.
- Once you've memorized a few small sections you have the opportunity (and chore) of successfully linking them together. The small sections are now like bricks and now you need to mortar them together. When you've done so, that's when you'll begin enjoying some true mastery, the effortless command over larger phrases of music. And that's where the fun really begins. It's when your efforts start to sound like music.
- Your'll need an effective review cycle to etch your accomplishments deeply into your memory. Brief recurring review is an essential ingredient in a winning formula. I'll describe the value of review in detail later in this article. A healty review cycle with ease the way and make your accomplisments stick; will make it stick. But in pursuit of speed and memorixation you mustn't neglect the essentions: correct fingering and posture, correct onset timing and duration. If you do, eventualy you'll need to chilsel those bricks out of your memory.
If you want to jump ahead to the secrets, click this link.
What's the mystery?
Doesn't everyone know how to memorize? Well, yes and no. When we very young we learned and memorized our native language and did so practically without effort; interestingly, that task is much harder for a mature mind!
Most of us easily remember faces. We can retrieve the scads of pertinent information that help us navigate and participate in our daily lives.
But many of us feel frustrated and discouraged in music when memorization doesn't occur effortlessly or instantly. We find that we're on unfamiliar territory when attempting to memorize material that's not visual or intellectual—something other than pictures, faces, ideas or facts, things that are very specific rather than a general concept.
When we learned to walk we were resilient and sufficiently endowed with an appetite for learning physical memories. Somehow we managed the constant trial and error without discouragement or self criticism ... plus we had lots of free time and didn't have much on our minds!
When there's trouble with music proficiency the underlying issue is that students try to apply intellectual learning techniques when physical study skills are required. Simple as that.
Indeed most teens and adults remain capable of memorizing and enormous amount of new knowledge ... but most of us have forgotten what it takes to learn and master new physical skills.
When encountering the large challenges involved in learning music, it's easy to conclude that we've somehow missed the boat, thinking, "If only I'd started earlier when my mind was young." But I've coached adults in their 80 learn to play violin as their first insrument, to a level where they were satisfied with their accomplishments and experienced the joy of playing with others.
Intellectual learning vs. Physical learning
It stands to reason that the average student would have plenty of prior successes with memorization, and that they would therefore have enough intuition or adequate understanding too incline them to an efficient and effective approach to music memorization. But my decades of experience as a music instructor have revealed quite the opposite. In fact, students tend to dislike and avoid the very skills and habits that will quickly afford them the musical experience they seek and mastery over important new physical skills.
indeed, we might not always enjoy all the steps required in reaching our musical goals, but deep rewards may cause us to gladly embrace the necessary chores, and to excitedly exploit them as the most direct path to our goal ... even if that means delaying gratification and deferring to the steps required. Eventually we gravitate toward those steps because they provide the quickest surest rewards.
Here's another apt quote from painter Marc Chagall whose "achievement couleur" is perhaps unrivaled: "The dignity of the artist lies in one's duty of keeping awake the sense of wonder in the world. In this long vigil he often has to vary his methods of stimulation ..." And Chagall concludes with an admonition germane to those of us practicing the art of music: "... in this long vigil one must strive against a continual tendency to sleep."
To practice well and memorize easily, you'll need to stay awake to the methods that elevate your playing, and remain mindful of competing domains (nearly simultaneously) as you:
1) refine the sounds and movements that make your music beautiful
2) use study skills to help you quickly and securely achieve those refinements.
Memorization is a natural linguistic skill
Music memorization is an essential skill, and it's critically important. As stated earier, most musicians can play music far better than they can read music.
It's naturally important is And it's important to understand that learning by ear and memorization are the natural language of music. And this is easily seen if we look into history.
Western/European music notation is only a few hundred years old. In contrast, people have been singing and playing music for many thousands of years, and have successfully done so without need of notation. I'm not being dismissive about music reading—it's a profoundly communicative language, a form of stored memory, and a enlightening geometric view into the patterns and structures of music.
I can scarcely imagine my life as a musician without music literacy. However, for many people including myself, an over reliance on music reading is limiting. Suffice it to say, if you don't develope into a really good reader, and if you always rely on reading, you won't be able play well. And even if you advance to read at a very advanced level, playing wellmemorized pieces will likely allow you to play more effortlessly, more expressively and closer to your best, with less susceptibility to distractions and nervousness. So don't let reading hold you back.
I encourage everyone to work to improve their reading, and with diligent practice (and techniques like reading ahead) you can attain a high level of music effective literacy. But I must repeat, reading tends to interfere with memorization, and as you'll see, it does so for a number of reasons. The main reason is that when you're looking at music, the mind knows that it needn't memorize, so for the most part, it does not, regardless of the amount of time spent reading straight through a piece. Because you're not asking it to. Adding speed to small sections and looking away from the notation is key in memorizing, and you'll want to employ that tool throughout your practice. You'll see soon.
Read to memorize. Find your potential and to play your best. That will motivate you to go deeper into music and to work harder and improve your reading.
Now some people just look at a page of music instantly form an eidetic image of a page of music notation—a "photographic" image of it in memory... and they can read the notation "in their mind" without the page of music in front of them. Ironically they may have the additional memorization challenge of "not being able to look away from the music."
Surmounting your blocks and doubts
Many people struggle with memorization because they're using an ineffective approach. As a result they think they're just not good at memorization, when it's far more likely that they simply haven't found a good path.
Others struggle because they doubt that they'll be able to memorize music, so they don't adopt effective study skills. Or they've tried approaches that don't work well, and for that reason they erroneously conclude that the problem lies in their level of ability or talent. But in reality memorization is natural part of our everyday lives. However, many of us have simply lost touch with how to learn and memorize large bodies of information, and how to attain mastery over new and challenging physical skills.
When pursuing memorization people are swayed by emotional blocks, like frustration and doubt. And they easily feel confined by the amount of repetition required. Or they judge themselves erroneously, thinking they wouldn't need so much repetition if only they were better a better musician or student.
In other words, sometimes a difficult emotion will derail the very practice habits and study skills that will benefit you most. So you'll need to learn to keep yourself calm and adhere to the recommended path, even when the going gets tough. And to manage studious focus while simultaneously having enough fun to keep yourself motivated, proceed with respect to the adage, "All things in moderation, including moderation!" Yes, you can goof around some, binge a little and enjoy some fun playing that doesn't really amount to much ... as long as you get back to work.
And even when students resign themselves to a restrictive diet of repetition, they often fail to repeat in a way that makes a nutritious difference, so they can easily conclude that ineffective approaches are adequate, if not better, because they feel more fun. And this is an extremely common issue I've seen with students over decades of teaching private lessons.
It's important to get follow a few simple steps and keep them in the correct order, and review appropriately.
Repetition and memorization
We can't memorize without repeating. We can't repeat without memorizing. If you honestly contemplate these two sentences, I needn't say much more about practice and memorization.
If your repeat things poorly you'll memorize unwanted habits; if you fail to relax you'll become entrenched in tight or awkward hand positions, and if you unclear about the intended outcome you'll make mistakes in timing and notes. It's hard to undo these matters, especially incorrect timing. Careless practice inevitable leads to needless work untangling the results of reckless playing. If you work hard at first, you can avoid lots of needless effort.
"Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe." — Abraham Lincoln
To make incisive progress you'll need to pick the proper tool, sharpen it, and get to work. To learn to play effortlessly, you must learn to repeat accurately. To repeat accurately you'll often need to work on small bits so you can refine and relax. Then to make a lasting impression on your memory you'll need to adequately increase the speed of the repetitions.
Your progress will hinge on a combination of refinement, accuracy, adequate persistence, and speed.
Speed itself is an essential catalyst to memorization. Speed is most easily acquired when you practice on small sections. Small sections played fast etch a sustainable recollection into your short-term memory (also known as working memory.) And if you're reading the music, generally you'll need to look away from the page to etch this small sections into long-term memory. This is because the brain sees no reason to memorize what it can see and read. If you keep reading or peeking you will usually only retain a partial and wobbly recollection.
Naturally, your accomplishments won't be perfect at first. So you must get yourself on track quickly, before ingraining bad habits or misconceptions. You won't improve much by stumbling and efforting your way through pieces, just chipping away, believing that time and effort are the key ingredients, and if applied in quantity a good result will eventually appear.
Be clear on your goals, each small step of the way. Get a clear image of the step you're trying to accomplish, make sure you're working on an accomplishable piece, and watch to make sure you're rudder points you in the right direction.
Don't bite off more than you can chew. Attempt, evaluate and repeat. Repeat carefully, in measured doses, so you accomplish your goal and ensure you don't get overwhelmed or frustration. Be sure to finish what you start. Be satisfied with a small solid accomplishment each day. Be kind to yourself, and have fun. It's your responsibility to keep it fun. Even given the suggestions and tips for success, you need figure out and assure that it's mostly fun.
Have a specific goal in mind every minute of your practice. Become aware of when you have a goal in mind, learn shift your attention from goal to goal: playing with steady time, with good tone, with proper hand positions. Learn to spread your attention wide enough that you can observe your actions and sounds, and compare them to your understanding of the goal, and steer yourself toward that goal, in a way that will be retained enough that you can quickly rediscover it the follow day and build upon it. (All the while checking casually and occasionally to see if previously honed skills are working as intended. If they are already well learned it won't take but a second of attention to notice and correct. And that's how it all comes together.)
Memorization secrets in a nutshell
Most people can easily learn and memorize music, they can learn the intricate and subtle physical skills of musicianship, and they can best accomplish these tasks when they adhere to a couple of essential approaches:
1) practice with methods that produce rapid improvement for you
2) review in a manner that ensures a persistent, long-lasting, long-term memory
Sounds rather simplistic, I know. In upcoming sections I'll explain these points in detail, but first let's take a overview of the challenge facing musicians and music students.
The musical challenge
Musicians are 'small muscle' athletes. Learning a new instrument or a new song involves physical training, just like learning the skills of a sport like skiing, boarding or swimming.
Imagine the practice routine of Olympic divers. There are hundreds of repetitions of every aspect of the dive: learning flips and twists, first independently, then learning to combine them. And finally, once the dive is perfected, to ensure consistency and reliability, they practice the perfected dive again and again, hundreds, even thousands of times. The same thing happens in the ballet studio or martial arts dojo.
You only get to some of what you learn!
This is the part that hardest for most people to accept. You only get to keep a portion of what you learn in a practice session. Doesn't seem fair, I know. After all your hard work! If your expectations are more aligned with reality, you're more likely to feel happy. You can better manage your expectations when you realize that you will naturally forget some of what you've accomplished in yesterday's practice session, or that you won't immediately remember what you've learned in prior sessions. Along with this understanding you'll need to know the steps of establishing the deepest possible memories, and the steps for recalling them and further strengthening them.
Short-term memory (working memory) dissipates quickly, and if you fail to take steps to transfer it into long-term memory, it will feel like you're starting over from scratch the next day. Part of the secret is managing your expectations, and using approaches that produce quick and solid results ... and even then, know that it may take some warm up and review to find the knowledge acquired the previous day. When people struggle to recall they may bail out, and ignore or avoid repracticing without reconnecting with and reviving the memory they've already kindled. And this can quickly cause a downward spiral with your accomplishments with the specific piece or technique at hand, or it can cause your overall enthusiasm to stall. And if you love music, you don't want that, nor is there any reason for it if you're equipped with the right tools and understanding.
The opening section of this article states two basic premises. The first premise is that students need to make 'rapid improvements' when practicing. Without rapid improvement students become frustrated, which leads to discouragement or disinterest, even the erroneous conclusion that the task at hand or music itself is beyond the student's grasp. Even if you possess a strong passion for an instrument, if you find yourself unable to quickly acquire skills, if you're unable to assimilate new repertoire, if you're unhappy with the sound you make, eventually your verve may fade.
You have a limited period of time to master various skill before frustration or disinterest set it ... or before you consciously or unconsciously resign yourself to being a perpetual beginner. So it's in your best interest to discover the steps that help you learn quickly, and use them regularly.
I am earnestly advocating timely accomplishment, indeed... so I need to clarify. The 'rapid improvement' I'm espousing is unrelated to impatient rushing. Impatience, recklessness and aimless efforts have no logical or practical connection with improvement, and they won't lead you to rapid improvement. Quite the contrary, they lead to disarray and unfulfilled goals.
You can accomplish 'rapid improvement' by a technique I call 'total prioritization.' It requires and affords heightened attention for detail and self-observation ... and it actually makes practice more interesting and more fun. Yet ironically, it's the path of the tortoise, not the hare.
I've known students who have studied skills for weeks, months, even years, without achieving their intended goal: straightening their bow stroke, developing flexibility in the bow hold, learning one or more styles of vibrato. They remain stuck because they just give a daily flick toward their goal, never really moving if substantially forward, or finding a foothold they can leverage the following day. Dutifully they devote a small amount of practice to bowing, but they establish only a small amount of momentum, an amount insufficient for carrying their accomplishment throughout the entire practice session. This means they practice on track for a few moments, but in their remaining efforts they fall back on familiar old habits, because the wheels always turn toward the ruts in the road, and this quickly undermines whatever bowing accomplishment they had achieved.
This is typically what happens when we fail to use 'total prioritization.' Later I'll illustrate how 'total prioritization' leads toward rapid assimilation of skills like violin bowing.
We've taken a brief look at rapid improvement, the essential first point of this article. Now let's look at our second point: reviewing in a manner that ensures a lasting, long-term memory.
Making memorable steps
Even if you practice in a manner that fosters improvement, if your style of practice and review fails to create strong, lasting memories, you'll reap little gain. Each day you'll feel like you're starting over. It's true in philosophy, in political science, and true in musical practice: 'Those who fail to remember the past are condemned to repeat it.' Sound harsh, but that's the way it is!
The mastery of physical skills requires a real "physical education." An eloquently expressed description can be found in Mastery, an insightful book by George Leonard. I highly recommend that you read it.
Quality over quantity
If time devoted to practice fails to help you improve, all the time in the world won't amount to much. As a music student, your job is to improve, master, and remember what you've accomplished. And, as much as possible, enjoy the process.
To learn a musical instrument you must learn to master many physical skills. Most musical skills are actually a compound skill—a physical skill built upon the foundation of other previously memorized skills, or one that works simultaneously in tandem.
Every step of the way you need to master skills so that they operate automatically. You can't turn a skill into a compound skill until the foundation skill is entirely memorized. Once memorized a skill operates in an easy efferent flow. And that is precisely what allows us to begin combining the skill with other memorized skills to make compound skills. Concentrated mental attention is not required to drive it—at least not our normal executive process, where we dictate a set of rapid instructions.
Once we've freed our mental attention by memorizing movement and patterns, we can use our attention for higher purposes, to track and refine existing skills and adopt new skills. We build one skill upon the next, and we must perfect each foundation skill before adding on, or the whole system becomes unstable. This type of building and refining requires careful observation and much review.
In summary: Attention is required in reviewing and evaluating each skill to determine if more refinement is required. A memorized skill operates with without our conscious oversight. You can't study or shape a new skill while trying to master another. But you can connect skills to existing ones.
Listen to the music that you plan to learn
More than any other single activity, listening helps you learn music easily and quickly. So schedule some listening into your day. Just listen to music a couple of times a day—a piece that you want to learn, or a piece you've already begun working on. You needn't drop everything, set aside a special time, or apply any special concentration. In other words, don't make a big deal out of it. Play a recording while attending to some task. Listen when you're in the car. The music will sink in effortlessly as you attend to other activities. You just need to hear it.
Listen to each new piece for a few days before you start to practice it. You're ready to start working on it when you can hum or whistle the piece or you can hear it in your head.
If you are good at reading music, especially if you're good at reading rhythms, you may not need to listen. Still it will be quite helpful.
The biggest advantage in listening is that it keeps you from making rhythmic mistakes. And rhythmic mistakes are the hardest to fix. So, simply by listening you'll avoid some of the worst pitfalls.
What if you already know how it goes?
It's best to listen anyway. There are lots of different versions of a single piece of music. Listen to a recording of the version that plan to learn. Even after you've learned a song, play with favorite recordings. Listen and compare your sound to that of the recording.
Daily practice is a cornerstone of steady progress. You'll get much more out of music study if you practice every day.
An occasional missed day won't hurt, but a string of misses leaves recent accomplishments prone to dissipate, and that tacks on needless rebuilding and review.
Many people under estimate the value of daily commitment so they skip days without too much concern. They usually do so with the good intention of doubling-up the following day. But one skipped practice session often leads to another. If a student skips a few days, this can lead to pledges of catching up with one or more marathon sessions on the weekend. But most 'make up' promises are destined to be broken, especially when a backlog of
deferred practice comes due.
Unfortunately, these make-up sessions seldom materialize. And when they do, often they're counterproductive. Practice should contain some hard work and diligent repetition, but it should should also be fun.
Long marathon sessions usually cause mental and physical fatigue which can initiate a downward spiral, leaving you tired, frustrated and probably with little to show for your efforts. Often there's little fun and little accomplishment. A regular reliance on marathon sessions may easily take the joy out of music, and lead to a bad attitude toward practice—practice which might well be enjoyed when spread out appropriately.
There are many other benefits to daily practice.
Daily practice helps to keep you toned and strengthened, limber and relaxed.
Music practice places many demands on your body, so it's important to warm up and stretch. If you warm up and prepare yourself before you practice rigorously, your body will benefit from the exercise. If not, you run the risk of developing bad habits and physical tension.
If you have trouble practicing a regular amount every day, try alternating days of light and heavy practice. That's what tri-athletes do.
Shorten your practice rather than skipping it
There will come days when you really don't have time for a full practice session there's only so many hours in the day! There will be times when something else comes up that you'll choose to do instead. And some days you're honestly too tired to practice or you just don't feel like doing it.
On days like these go easy on yourself, but don't skip your practice entirely. Simply shorten it! Put in five or ten minutes, give yourself a pat on the back, and then call it a day. This may leave you feeling disappointed that you didn't put in a significant effort. Surprisingly, it really makes a significant contribution toward your progress.
A few minutes of practice may not measure up to your idea of a rigorous practice session, but it actually goes a long way toward keeping you on track. It maintains and strengthens your "daily commitment," and that counts for a lot.
Remember that the "daily" aspect is more important than the amount of time; especially at first. Slow and steady wins the race we need to remind ourselves of the tortoise the hare.
Pick up your instrument daily, even if you practice for just a few minutes. It's much better to shorten your practice than to skip days.
The occasional skipped days
Hey, nobody's perfect. Just tell yourself, "tomorrow will be a better day." Take a brief moment to imagine yourself practice, improving, and enjoying it. Choose a time for tomorrow's practice.
Practically everybody wants to skip the warm-up. This is true for beginners, advanced students, young students and adults. The complaint is that the warm-up "keeps you from getting to the fun part." This is a short-sighted view. A good warm-up will heighten your skills, and will make it easier for you to play well during the rest of your practice.
Always start your practice with something easy, preferably something familiar.
Play some open string exercises or easy scales. Then play an easy piece or two. In doing so, you'll establish a baseline for the day - a preflight check, a list of what's working and what's not. Then continue your warm-up and try to improve on these points before working on new or challenging material.
If you skip the warm up and fail to establish a baseline at the start of your practice, you may proceed with unrealistic goals for the day, launching in unaware that certain skills are working, while others are temporarily dormant.
If you practice more than once a day, you may shorten or skip your warm-up in the later sessions.
Strive to improve from today's baseline. Have that single goal in mind!
It's rare that you pick up right where you left off the day before. This is especially true for beginners. It may take five to twenty minutes to get yourself warmed up and back in touch with yesterday's best.
With other types of tasks, such as building a stone path, you continue building on Wednesday right where you finished on Tuesday. But not with music.
There will come days when your most diligent efforts will fail to elevate you to the level of yesterday's accomplishments. Or perhaps you'll reach yesterday's level, but not until your practice is nearly over.
And it's OK. Don't let it get to you. Your achievements won't always follow a straight line, and your improvements won't always come at a steady rate.
So simply strive to improve from your starting point from your baseline.
Warm Up On Technique
As you practice a piece of music, you must spread your attention spread over several tasks: reading notes, interpreting the timing, trying to play at a steady pace, maintaining posture and relaxation, creating good tone, playing in tune, accenting ... the list goes on.
With so many musical details vying for your attention, you're likely to lose track of your technique (the details of how you control your instrument, including posture, hand positions, relaxation ....)
So, it's essential that you practice technique during your warm-up period, otherwise you may fail to improve or maintain technique at all.
But if you practice technique first, there's a good chance some of the accomplishments will carry through to the rest of your practice. When this occurs, your practice yields dividends on an exponential level.
Divide and Accomplish
Divide and conquer an old idea. I put a positive spin on it, calling it Divide and Accomplish. Break tasks and obstacles into small, manageable pieces. This is ideal for learning music and physical skills.
There's plenty of brain research that shows that most people can only remember about seven items of new information at a time plus or minus two. To learn large groups of information efficiently, you must study the material in small sections.For most people, that means just four to eight notes. Though this may seem like a ridiculously small amount, even four to eight notes can be too much. You have to see for yourself. If you can't accomplish your goal, try reducing the size of the section.
Work on any size piece you want, any amount that allows you to make decided progress, and that you do so quickly. If you fail to quickly learn the section you've chosen, divide the section in two parts, and practice those parts in loops.
Continue dividing until you reach a size where you can progress quickly. Indeed you may need to work on just two, three or four notes. And this can be the most intelligent and effective way to proceed.
When adopting this style of practice, you're face to face with delayed gratification. Playing from the start to the end feels like a lot more fun, but you may accomplish little by doing so. The big fun comes from learning a piece well, and reaping the many rewards that accompany that level of success.
The steps in the journey:
From understanding, to accurate repetition, to physical knowledge.
The study and mastery of a musical instrument is largely about observation, repetition, and a careful four-step process where we develop and transfer skills from one level of knowledge to another.
Once we've thoroughly learned a physical movement, we no longer rely on understanding or deliberate actions to produce the desired result. This is critical. People are unable quickly and reliably perform actions while they are still under conscious control, so we need to transfer the skill out of conscious attention, not to improve our ability, but because we need our conscious attention for other tasks—primarily for observation. To practice effectively we need to shift our observation from point to point, without interrupting our skill execution.
Step 1: Understanding
Understanding is essential when attempting to learn physical skills. Nothing can be accomplished without it. It's our map to our destination. However all the understanding in the world won't produce a physical skill -- it's merely to tool with which we set our sights and evaluate our progress. Then the trial and error begins.
Step 2: Refinement
Through trial and error we influence and forge memories, but we can only forge good memories when we understand and can discern between a desirable and undesirable outcome. It takes lots of trial and error before your body can do what your mind clearly understands. You can't sail freely when constantly referring to your map. Sometimes even a misunderstanding needs refinement, but this may be impossible to know until we begin trial and error.
Once a movement is correctly refined, sufficient repetition is required in order to establish the movement deeply in your memory. It takes still more repetition and review before you'll have a reliable type of reflex-level, long-term memory.
This result is often called kinesthetic memory, motor memory, or muscle memory, which is a cascade of ordered reflexes, rather than a string of bodily instructions and mental intentions. You must reach this level of control in order to play by heart in recitals, performances or rehearsals.
Step 3: Working memory (short term memory) and relinquishing executive process
When we've thoroughly learned a physical movement, we no longer rely on the slow deliberate sequence of conscious instructions delivered through executive process. We bypass executive process completely and replace it with a cascade of ordered reflexes that trigger effortlessly and reliably in succession. The mere imagination of the melody carries the song effortlessly through the fingers. It looks magic, and feels magical, and it's a testament to the amazing mind/body ability to memorize physical movement.
Step 4: Muscle memory and long term memory
Once you can play something by heart, when you've got it in short term memory, make sure to transfer that knowledge into long term memory. It's the moments you spend playing by heart—without reading at all—that create durable long term memory.
Reading music will surely interfere with memorization, and it easily undermines memorization by preventing or stalling the transfer of knowledge to long term memory. I have no quarrel with written music, nor it's use in memorization ... if people use it wisely. Use it to launch yourself into motion by reading small sections of music, usually just four to eight notes. Then add speed to the section as you continue practicing it in a loop.
Whether reading or learning by ear, you need to practice fast enough to out run executive process. Executive process is a slow, deliberate type of mental effort where intention and observation are roughly intertwined. When you exceed the speed executive process allows, you make the leap to playing by heart.
To free yourself from executive process, systematically increase your speed. Then look away from the music. Go back and forth as much as you need: switch from reading, to memory, from reading to memory. When fully comfortable increase your speed even slightly more and continue repeating—uneffortful speed naturally deepens memory.
Give it a minute — Don't obsess
Once you've chosen a practice section, practice it briefly in a loop, just for a minute or two. If there's no progress after about 20 seconds, work on half as much. Then go to the next section or even to another piece of music. There are advantages to working on a sections pieces at once:
-- it keeps practice interesting
-- it keeps confusion and frustration at bay
-- it allows your memory to absorb the experience subconsciously. This way you'll get the most out your of practice time much like studying and sleeping on it.
Review is your best practice tool. If you've tackled a few new sections, and you can play them by heart, review each section occasionally during your practice.
Alternate between learning and reviewing.
Start your practice with something familiar. Then try something new. Continue alternating between familiar and new. In other words, rest one part of your brain while a different part works.
Get it right
You'll learn whatever you practice. There's the old saying, "Practice makes perfect." Actually practice makes permanent. So practice carefully. Don't practice music casually. Anything repeated becomes partially memorized. Don't memorized just anything! Be specific. In Jane Wagner's play, the Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, Trudy the bag lady takes a looks at her station in life, haven fallen from a high powered New York city career, now living on the street and having conversations with extraterrestrials. She states, "I always knew I wanted to be somebody. Now I realize I should have been more specific!" (Sounds like something Henny Youngman would say!)
Keep it right
Your memory thrives on patterns. It especially notices recurring perceptions and repeated actions. If you repeat actions casually, without precision in time and motion, your memory will probably discard you good efforts, or it may link them with a number of errant and imperfect bad habits.
Exact repetition allows you to memorize quickly and efficiently. Your brain literally stores new repeated memories by creating new physical structures in you brain. once your memory is hard-wired in this manner, it is lightly quick at serving up perfected or unperfected movements, depending on what you've practiced.
As you repeat make the movements the same every time you play a passage. Once you've established a relaxed and well formed hand position, work on a small passage. Refine your movements with attention to relaxation and economy of motion. Don't just aim for right notes. Extra motion will slow you down and tire you out.
Complete your practice with review
Before you end your practice session, briefly review all the material you've practiced once again. In just a few tries see if you can revive each accomplishment to the best level that you achieved during this practice. Then just spend another minute with it. I know I've already said this, but I just wanted to review!
This article outlined and explained a number of practice ideals, but of course we never practice in a perfectly ideal manner. Nevertheless, you'll benefit when you include any of these methods into your daily practice. As you adopt good practice habits, you'll get more out of your practice. Occasionally try out one of the tips that you forgot or avoided.
There are many other practice techniques as well. Some are rather detailed and best explained by example in lessons.
Watch your own progress. Remember the value of various learning techniques. Try them out. Soon enough you'll discover your own practice secrets. Make a list so you don't forget them.
Recommended Reading: Books on music practice and learning music
Recommended reading for musicians and music students
How to learn music without frustration
Links on this page:
Private Music Lessons