How Tracking My Practice Made Me a Better Musician

My inconsistent, unfocused practice was making it hard for me to improve as a musician. Once I started tracking my practice, my musical world opened up.

by Tarun

Creator, tuneUPGRADE

Years and years ago, nothing made me more nervous than the idea of telling someone that I played a musical instrument. Sure, I tinkered around at home and could maybe play a few bars of the last song I learned, but I certainly wouldn't consider myself a musician. I'd dabbled in lessons off and on, and eventually get bored, or feel like I wasn't making forward progress, and so I'd stop for a while. Maybe once a month I'd hear a song and think "I should learn to play that!", have a spark of motivation, but that would quickly fade.

So, sure, I had practiced piano for a few years, off and on, but I really struggled to make the progress I wanted to. And the cycle would just repeat - I'd get a flash of motivation, I'd sit down, and start playing, and then eventually just play a few things that I really had fun playing - but then I'd get tired and frustrated that I just wasn't making good progress on a song, and then I'd stop for a while. Or life would get in the way, and I'd get busy. Or I'd try to binge one week, only to play nothing the next.

A little while back I decided to try a fresh approach by focusing on one core question:

Was I really practicing as much as I thought I was?

In other words - I told myself I'd try to practice 5 days a week for an hour each - but was I really hitting that? How much time was I actually getting in? Sure, I sat down and practiced an hour - or was that just 45 minutes? Was I actually practicing 5 days a week? Or did I hit 3 and say "good enough"? could I fix this?

The Goal: Maximizing Focused Practice Time

Of course, I knew the answer - that getting better meant that I had to spend as much focused practice time on my instrument as possible - but I struggled to actually do that!

So I started to break down all the different problems that I was having with my practicing, and came up with a specific list of problems I knew I had that held me back.

  • I spent too little time practicing. I'd both cheat with spending enough time during a session (i.e. "I'll spend an hour practicing today", but get up after 45 minutes or less), as well as in days of the week (i.e. "I'll spend 5 days this week practicing") - but forget what days I practiced, or think, "good enough" after 4.

  • I would over-practice one thing: Even when did put in the time, I would spend way too much time playing things I already knew, instead of focusing on new things.

  • I would forget things I had learned: Over a few years, I had learned quite a few songs - but I couldn't remember what all of them even were, let alone be able to play them on demand or get the back up to speed quickly.

  • I would get stuck on the last 10% of a song: Many songs I played would be at 90% proficiency - it was just that last 10% that was always the most difficult - typically because I'd fumble or slow down during the most difficult parts of songs.

So, when I started to design tuneUPGRADE, I looked at each of these problems and tried to figure out how I could build a practice tool that helped keep me on track and maximize my focused practice time and get better faster.

Problem #1: I Spent Too Little Time Practicing

The first thing I told myself was that I was no longer allowed to cut corners on my practice time - and a timer doesn't lie. I set up a stopwatch, and hit go.

Sure enough, I found myself thinking "Ok, I've definitely practiced that scale for 5 minutes", when only 2 or 3 minutes had passed. Setting up the timer kept me honest, and stopped the problem of "Good enough".

But, the best thing that I realized was - right when I thought I was done, but still had additional time remaining, I would immediately start reflecting on how else I could use the remaining time to continue to focus on what I was working on. Was there a particular part that was rough and needed a little extra attention that I should go back to? Or should I take this opportunity to push the envelope and try to play something again, but faster this time?

The time between the I think that's enough timeframe and the actual time spent became the most impactful time of my practice, because it gave me a moment to reflect. Instead of thinking about getting up from my piano, I was focused for a set period of time on one thing, and during that time I was able to not just blindly play, but really think about how to improve - and keep my hands playing on the keyboard!

This combined with a weekly goal of total time spent helped me have enough hands-on-keyboard time to actually feel like I was making progress!

Problem #2: I Would Over-Practice One Thing

Ok, so now, thanks to my timer, I knew I was spending the total time I intended to while practicing. But, I still had another problem - I would spend the majority of my practice session playing something easy and fun, instead of learning something new. This isn't necessarily a problem for everyone! If your goal is to just be able to enjoy yourself and you're happy with what you're playing, awesome! But for me, I wanted to learn new things - long term, I wanted to be a better musician.

So I started allocating time in my practice to a routine - and the important part now was to not under or over practice one specific thing!

(Fun Fact! Because I kept having to glance at the timer to see when I had to move on, I wrote a little web app to tell me when I was supposed to move forward, so I wouldn't have to watch the stopwatch the whole time - and tuneUPGRADE was born.)

Over-practicing felt like a victory initially when it was for something new I was learning - after all, why shouldn't I be proud of spending more time on something new I'm actually motivated to learn? But, I realized this came with an additional problem - Over-practicing until I wanted to stop left me mentally exhausted, and only let me focus only one new thing per day. This means that if I had 3 songs I was working on learning, the first might have gotten the most attention, but the remaining 2 I wasn't as attentive and focused on.

In order to have the best of both worlds, when my timer went off for the first song, I'd carry that energy into the next one - and towards the end of my routine, I established Open Practice Time (or as I like to call it now - Rock Out Time), which was unstructured time for me to play anything I was interested in - whether that was going back to something I had already learned and enjoying playing through it again, or returning to something I was learning earlier on that piqued my interest.

Some of this naturally led to helping with problem #3, but there was more to it than that, too...

Problem #3: I Would Forget Things I Learned

We all learned this from our school days - cramming studying when trying to learn something does not work. It's far more effective to learn something a little bit over time vs. trying to spend hours in a single day learning something. (Side note - a great course that covers this topic is Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects). What I had found when my practice habits were erratic was things were easy to forget. I might spend all day memorizing how to play all of the different modes in the key of C, but a week later, I'd forget it all.

This problem was already starting to correct itself by creating a good practice routine and sticking with it, as I was learning through daily repetition, and giving myself enough time to think about how else I could apply something through my practice routine. For example, when I picked up guitar, and started learning the fretboard, I'd spend 5 minutes doing a fretboard learning exercise at the start of my routine, and then try to recall notes as I was playing other songs through the rest of my routine. Rinse and repeat enough times each week, and I feel much more confident getting around the fretboard than I did a month prior.

So retention of musical knowledge was generally better, but what about all of those songs that I've learned in the past that I hadn't played in over a year? How was I supposed to keep all those fresh?

To solve this, I started tracking my repertoire of known songs, and each practice session, I would spend part of the time looking through the repertoire and finding a song that I didn't remember very well. I'd do this towards the end of my session - after working on new songs, but before my "rock out" time, and I started experiencing the joy of being able to pick up those songs very quickly again, and even see how my general musicianship would affect how I would play them.

At this point, I felt like I had a pretty good system going! My practice time was higher, I was learning more, and learning faster, and I had songs I could draw upon and refresh myself on rather quickly. But, I still had to tackle that last problem.

Problem #4: I Would Get Stuck on on the last 10% of a Song

When you start practicing a song, where do you start?

While the beginning sounds like the most intuitive answer - it's not the right one. Say you are learning a new song that's a few minutes long (or, if you prefer to think in measures, 100 measures long). If every day you start practicing it from the beginning, sure, you'll get the beginning down really well - but you'll spend the least amount of time on the end.

Consequently, the most difficult parts of the song are the areas that likely need the most time spent on them. So, whenever I started to learn a song, I'd break down all the parts. If it was off sheet music, I'd number the measures and look for tough areas. If it was a rock or pop song, I'd write out the song structure and listen for the areas that sounded the most complex.

And thus, I learned the value of practice notes. By capturing the areas that needed the most work at the end of each practice session, and starting with those areas at the start of the next session, I could always focus my time on where it was needed the most - and it became far easier to get from 90% proficiency to 100% proficiency on a song, because I had been working on the hardest part all along.

Capturing notes like what tempo I was playing each part at, and helpful tips that I'd work out, from fingerings to links to advice on the internet, pieces wouldn't linger in that "almost there" state, and I wouldn't give up on them.

In fact, if you'd like even more detail here, there's another blog post that covers the best strategies for improving faster by using practice notes.

Now, My Musicianship Grows!

By tracking my practice, I went from someone who didn't feel worth of the title of musician because of my poor practice habits to someone who now has a steady, regimented approach to practicing, and has become a far better musician as a result. I've been able to learn theory a bit at a time. I've been able to pick up songs much faster. I've become a multi-instrumentalist, and I feel generally confident that I can talk the talk and walk the walk of music - even though it continues to be a wonderful lifelong journey.

Since building tuneUPGRADE and using it to track my practice, I've become a better pianist, and went from knowing nearly nothing about guitar to becoming a fairly proficient guitarist in just a few years. I've written and recorded fun songs for my friends, and feel comfortable sitting down and playing something on demand for anyone who asks. In short, tracking my practice was the best way for me to learn faster, more effectively, and consistently to be able actually feel like I could call myself a musician.

Join me and many other users over at tuneUPGRADE, start tracking your practice, and note the difference yourself!

This post is part of the The Beat, a blog by the free music practice tracker tuneUPGRADE. Sign up and start tracking your practice to become a better musician today - totally free!

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