Practice tips with USC Thornton faculty Steve Trovato

Steve Trovato is a faculty member in the Studio/Jazz Guitar and Popular Music Departments at the USC Thornton School of Music. A world-class guitarist, he has released several recordings under his own name that all received favorable reviews. As a renowned educator, he has published dozens of guitar instruction methods for Warner Brothers, Hal Leonard, and Alfred Music Publishers. He has been interviewed by Guitar Music Publications world-wide and is the recipient of numerous awards as both educator and artist.

Noticing how many students ask for practice tips, Trovato assembled this helpful guide that should prove an invaluable resource for musicians of any skill level, instrument, or age.

How should I practice? This is one of the most often frequently questions by students in both the Studio Jazz/Guitar and Popular Music departments.

Students often wonder if they are making the best use of their time, getting the most benefit from their practice, how long they should practice and what they should practice. Students complain that they are practicing for hours and don’t see any improvement in their playing.

Before you start a practicing regimen, you have to be aware that the study of music is a lifelong process. It’s a discipline, and the key to mastering any discipline is consistency. Practicing every day is very important. A shorter daily practice session is more effective than a once a week marathon practice session.

Getting the most out of your practicing regimen depends on not only the quantity but also the quality of time you put in. If you practice in a focused, concentrated manner and make efficient use of your time, you’ll see results, retain more information and improve your technique.

Here are a few tips that will help you organize your practice schedule:

First, make sure that you have a quiet, uncluttered, comfortable workspace designated for practice. Eliminate distractions as much as possible. Find a comfortable chair or stool. The wrong posture will produce fatigue in your neck, upper or lower back. I prefer a straight back chair with no armrests. Sit up straight and don’t slump forward.

Be sure to begin every session with a warm up as you would before a gym workout. There are many warm up routines on the Internet. Anything repetitive can be an appropriate warm-up. Whichever warm up routine that you choose, play it up and down a few times until your fingers feel loose and comfortable. Then you’re ready to practice.

How to create a practice regimen

1. List your daily goals and be specific.

Determine what topics or skills that you need and want to work on. Mastering daily goals will help you to organize weekly, monthly and long-term goals. Maybe your goal for this day is to work on four subjects: scales, arpeggios, music reading and learning songs. Make a list of these topics. Order your list according to priority.

2. Decide on the amount of time that you can dedicate for a single practice session.

Practice sessions can be as long as you like, and should last only until concentration fades. Concentration spans are typically short at first but become longer as you progress. Sessions or time frames that are too long will yield diminishing returns. You may, of course, schedule more than one daily practice session.

 3. Divide your practice time into small manageable chunks or time frames.

Create a simple pie chart. Then parcel out specific blocks of time for each subject. Let’s say that you have allotted yourself time for a one hour practice session and want to practice four subjects: scales, arpeggios, music reading and learning songs. Four subjects of equal priority will yield four equal slices each representing 25 % of the pie or 15 minutes each. Percentage ratios will change depending on number of subjects, priority, etc. Shorter time frames will make learning specific topics and broader subjects more manageable and less intimidating.

 4. Now that your pie is divided up, you’re ready to practice.

You are going to need a timer. A timer on a cell phone will work fine. Set the timer for 15 minutes, start it and practice your first subject until the time is up then stop! You’re finished with this subject for this practice session. Take a short break to clear your mind. Set the timer again, start it and practice your next subject for 15 minutes and stop! Repeat this for the remaining two subjects. This signals the end of this practice session. You may of course schedule any number of practice sessions per day. Mastering small bits of information provides positive reinforcement to go on to the next subject. Allowing only a short time frame for each subject or skill will ensure the development of practice discipline. For example, being faced with the prospect of learning all the modes in all the positions can seem to be an insurmountable task. But if you say to yourself: For the next 15 minutes I’m going to learn the A Dorian scale in the fifth position and nothing else. The task becomes more manageable.

 5. Practice each subject slowly.

This is perhaps the most important tip in this article. You will be able to play the piece only by first mastering it slowly. Remember: Speed is a by-product of accuracy! I recommend breaking each piece into minute detail. What position will you use? What notes will you play as down strokes? Upstrokes? What finger will you use for each and every note? Learning a piece in this manner helps you to master it with no mistakes. If you find a passage where you consistently make a mistake, slow it down, isolate it and see exactly where the error occurs. Practice this section until you have mastered it then move one. You can only correct the problem once you know exactly what it is and what’s causing it.

6. Develop a good sense of time.

One of the most commonly overlooked and essential skills in becoming a good musician is having a good sense of time and rhythm. You can only achieve this by practicing with a metronome. If you aren’t practicing with a metronome you are wasting your time.

You can best develop a strong sense of “time” by practicing slowly and with as much diligence and dedication as you would practice any other skill.

 7. Listen to yourself!

Notice the details of what you play and how you play it. Record yourself playing if possible. You will learn much about your playing, and this will allow you to tune your practice sessions and allow for the most improvement for your time spent.

That’s it for now. Go and practice!