As a musician with some experience (it could be five years, 10 years, 15 years or more), you’ve probably got a good handle on how much practice you need to put in before your various commitments (live performances, recording sessions, session gigs, etc.).
Of course, at times it’s easy to get lazy.
And, depending on what you’re planning to do next (e.g. join a new band, perform with a music legend, record an album in a genre you don’t understand, etc.), you may need to kick your practice routine into high gear to be able to do what you want to do with your instrument or voice.
So, in this guide, we’ll look at various examples of practice routines to help you reach the pro level, maintain it or even exceed it.
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Why Do I Need To Practice?
Pros practice too. It isn’t just amateurs or intermediate players.
So, even if you’re playing out every night on tour, don’t get complacent; that's not a good quality. There are a lot of great reasons to keep practicing. Let’s look at a few.
Because You Want To Keep Improving
I have never heard any musician come to the end of their life and say, “I’ve mastered my instrument inside and out. There is nothing more for me to learn. No one can teach me anything.” (I think Yngwie Malmsteen may have said something like that in one of his first interviews).
No, there is always more to learn, and there is no upper limit.
Now, after reaching a certain point, you’re going to be required to find the motivation deep within you to keep improving, as bassist virtuoso Victor Wooten so eloquently said. No one can give you that motivation, even if they can inspire you.
So, even when you feel like you can play just about anything on command, there’s always more to learn and discover on your instrument. Keep going.
Everything you learn along the way, you can leverage in your singing or playing and even on your original tunes.
Because You Want To Stay Fresh With Specific Material
Even virtuosos like Nuno Bettencourt and Paul Gilbert practice. Gilbert himself has gone on record to say that there are some songs that always challenge him, and if he doesn’t stay fresh, he wouldn’t be able to perform them.
Bands sometimes go on extended hiatuses and may not record or perform for months at a time. Oftentimes, this is necessary for strategic reasons.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stay fresh with your material.
What if your band takes a 12-month break and you saunter into the first rehearsal you’ve had in a long time (to prepare for a forthcoming tour), only to discover you can’t remember your parts? And, what if you find you can’t even play some of them anymore?
You never know when you might be called upon to go and perform again.
I was recently asked to perform with a tribute band I’ve had an on again off again relationship with. Although I certainly didn’t forget everything, I wish I had done a better job keeping up with the material, as I found myself having to practice a lot at the last minute.
Because You Might Be Called Upon For A Different Kind Of Gig
Over the years, I’ve played at a myriad of venues with different bands. And, the music we played was varied too.
Sometimes it was covers. Sometimes it was originals. At other times, it was spontaneous jams.
You never know what type of gigs might come your way. It’s a well-kept secret that top performers like Beyoncé spend their “off” time performing at bar mitzvahs and the like. Really.
And, while you may not be able to imagine leaving your band right now, some shiny offers might come your way. It’s happened. Some famous bands have poached members from other bands.
The point is that there are many types of gigs out there, and while you may not end up playing all of them, you might find yourself wanting to tap into some, whether it’s for experience or cash.
If you aren’t practicing, you may not be ready for different types of gigs and may not even want to take them on for fear of embarrassing yourself.
What Should My Practice Routine Look Like?
Practice routines can be broken down into a few key components, as seen here:
- Music theory. Scales, chords, arpeggios, rhythm, harmony and more.
- Sight-reading. This can go hand in hand with music theory. Basically, anything to do with reading sheet music.
- Composition. The implementation of music theory and techniques you learn. I’m slotting songwriting under this heading as well.
- Technique. There are different techniques to practice for every instrument. On the guitar, you work on picking. On brass instruments, you work on blowing. With drums, it’s about how your stick hits the drums.
- Ear training. Your ability to recognize notes, key signatures, intervals, scales and more.
Since you’re a pro, I probably didn’t need to tell you that, but in case there are any glaring oversights in your knowledge or technique, here’s a reminder to begin working on them.
Some of these components, to be fair, are optional.
Plenty of people do fine without music theory or sight-reading (look at Jimi Hendrix).
Plenty of people don’t write their own songs and don’t need compositional skills (look at most pop singers).
Some musicians never play with music in front of them (most rock bands).
Some musicians almost always play with music in front of them (most orchestral players).
Technique, then, represents the most important piece. You can get on okay without the other competencies, but you can’t call yourself a musician if you can’t play your instrument or sing well.
After a while, playing or singing can mostly be boiled down to muscle memory and having a good ear.
YouTuber and guitarist Stevie T has admitted to not having a firm grasp of theory, but he’s certainly got a great ear (it shows in his music). And, his technique is up there with some of the best players out there.
With all this in mind, we’re ready to look at some of the routines of the greats. The examples that follow are all guitarists, because other musicians don’t just publish their routines publicly, but we can all get a sense of what to do from these examples.
Note: There is no one-size-fits-all solution, as you’re about to find out.
Guitar Virtuoso Steve Vai
Steve Vai is revered as one of the greats – not just as a guitarist, but as a musician. And, that’s a high honor.
He was so determined to play with Frank Zappa that he transcribed the horns in one of his songs, and even passed Zappa’s crazy tests in an audition.
Well, as it turns out, Vai earned his position as one of the world’s best guitarists.
He created something for himself called the 10-hour Practice Workout, which basically revolved around finger exercises, chords, scales and arpeggios in every position and every key, melodies, intervals, picking, slurring, learning songs, transcribing, improvising and more.
Modern Rock God Eddie Van Halen
It’s hard to imagine a world without Eddie Van Halen. Frankly, I don’t know what rock guitar playing would look like today if not for him.
Van Halen used to buy a six-pack of malt liquor, sit on the edge of his bed and practice his guitar from 7 PM to 3 AM (sometimes much longer than that).
Instrumental Rocker Joe Satriani
Satriani, who’s responsible for teaching and nurturing Steve Vai’s talent, takes a disciplined and organized approach to practice. He suggests that the brain can only hold so much, and only works on one technique for an hour at a time, ever.
Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean he only practices for an hour, but when he’s working on something new, he doesn’t sweat it for longer than 60 minutes per day.
When Should I Practice?
So, you’re probably starting to see the value of putting in the hours.
The question now is, when to practice?
And, while I can’t tell you exactly when to practice, because I don’t know what your day to day looks like, I can offer some tips to help you determine when to go into the practice closet. Read on.
First – The Quick, Easy Answer
If you have a 9 to 5 job, then practice after dinner. Start at 7 PM. You can practice for a few hours, but it would probably be best to wrap up around 10:30 or 11 so you can get a good night’s sleep (sleep is incredibly important for assimilating new information and developing muscle memory).
If you’re a music teacher, you probably work a 3:30 to 9 PM or equivalent. It’s going to take some discipline, but I would suggest starting your practice session nice and early, maybe 9 or 10 AM.
Then, you’ll give yourself plenty of time to prepare for your lessons and engage in personal practice besides. Feel free to break for lunch and maybe cut yourself off around 2 or 2:30 so you can give your hands, mouth and/or voice a rest before you start teaching (and drive to the studio if needed).
If your schedule is flexible, or you don’t have a job, then start at a time that you feel your absolute best at. For some people that’s 10 AM. For others, that’s 2 PM. Basically, you want to make the most of the time you are the sharpest and most able to focus on the task without interruption.
You can practice for as long as you like, but I can almost guarantee that most if not all musicians reach a point of diminishing returns. Pay careful attention to this and cut yourself off when you get tired or can’t focus anymore.
The Pareto principle suggests that 80% of your results come from 20% of your effort. Be sure to identify that 20% and don’t worry about pressing through with willpower when you’re not feeling it.
Tip #1 – Establish A Regular Time For Practice
Regardless of what your schedule is (mine used to be all over the map – it’s okay if yours is too), try to establish a regular time for practice so that it becomes automatic habit.
Tip #2 – Stay Consistent
Playing a little bit every day is far more valuable than last-minute cram and makeup sessions. Fit some practice into your schedule every day, even if it’s just for 10 to 30 minutes.
Tip #3 – Use The Margins Of Life
If we were honest with ourselves, we’d all see that we have time in our schedules where we do nothing. I don’t care if you’re the busiest person in the world.
So, take advantage of the margins of life. Play for five minutes. Play for 17 minutes. Sneak in three before bed. If you’re insanely busy, this might be the only way to make it happen.
Is It Possible To Practice Too Much?
In theory, no. In practice, yes. Here’s what I mean.
In theory, it’s awesome to be able to practice all day, every day, without interruption. In practice, it doesn’t always work out that way.
There are a few downsides to over-practicing, and I’ve seen them play out in a few people’s lives.
So, let’s look at the consequences of practicing too much:
- Your relationship can suffer. It might be best to remain single when you’re on a serious practice kick (especially if you’re dedicating 10+ hours of your time daily). I’ve had friends whose relationships suffered because of their fanatical dedication to practice, and no, the couple didn’t stay together.
- You can injure yourself. I have friend who sings all day long, because it’s his job to do so. And, he somehow manages, but only because he’s learned the proper care and maintenance of his voice. On the flip side, I had a friend who got tendonitis from over-practicing classical guitar. His wrist healed over time, but there’s a good chance he’ll never be able to put that much strain on his wrist again. Some injuries can’t be reversed.
- You can “lose your ear”. What makes a musician great? Their ability to play fast licks? Their versatility? Or, in the case of a singer, their range? Sure, but a lot of those things are subjective. What tends to be universally true about great musicians is they play to the song. They’re tasteful in their approach. They have a “good ear.” When you practice too much, you can get overconfident (or arrogant) and start playing all over your band mates and even steal the show, as it were. This often happens to cruise ship musicians who spend all their downtime practicing, because they only need to “work” (perform) at night. Avoid the temptation to play blazing solos over a ballad, just because you can.
Professional Musician Practice Routine, Final Thoughts
Do professionals practice more than beginners or intermediate players? Generally, no.
But that’s because they’re busy getting themselves out there applying what they know. They write, compose, rehearse, jam, perform, record, teach or even make other types of content using their skills.
So, from my guitar teaching years, I can tell you categorically that I was playing way more guitar when I was teaching, because I had students keeping me accountable. I was also actively rehearsing, gigging and recording too.
But when you need to put in the hours, you still need to put in the hours.
When I’m called upon to play a gig with someone I’ve never performed with before, I always spend some serious time in the practice closet.
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