Establishing Good Practice Habits as a Professional Musician

One of the most difficult duties of a professional, freelance musician, is finding time to practice. Yet practicing should be at the heart of the musician’s daily routine. Much like a professional athlete needs to constantly maintain their level of fitness, so must musicians keep their skills sharp. Yet unlike an athlete, musicians’ skills can continually improve over decades before peaking, making for a long, fruitful career. It’s just a matter of focused practicing.

Since college, I have struggled with keeping a steady practice routine. Life has always been full of distractions. Some distractions have nothing to do with music, like day jobs or TV, and others have everything to do with music, such as writing new music or booking gigs. Unlike college, when I’d practice roughly eight hours a day, I now rarely have a solid hour of uninterrupted time for practicing.

But let’s face it, everyone deals with the same types of distractions. The people that are the best at what they do have simply established better practice habits than everybody else. Everyone has their own methods–here are some I’ve adopted to improve my own habits.

Set Goals

What are your goals as a musician? What skills do you need to reach those goals? This seems obvious, but knowing what you want to do as an artist is the first step towards being the best. John Coltrane didn’t happen by accident!

When time is limited, you need to be very focused with the time you have. If you’re not sure what exactly you want to do, keep working on the skills that are in demand for better paying gigs such as sight reading and memorization. Those can come in handy in a variety of musician jobs. It’s also always valuable to use your metronome and work on your tone. Excellent time and unmistakable tone are the two things every great musician has in common.

And remember that making a living as a musician isn’t necessarily about being front and center. Highly skilled sidemen are always in demand. Guitarist Gary Melvin recently contributed an article to this site called A Guide to Being a Successful Sideman. In it, he recommends starting out with a broad skill set in various genres that can become more focused later:

Chances are, you’ll end up working in only a couple main genres with an occasional gig in another, but you want to start out with this mantra in mind: my specialty is not having a specialty. This leaves you open for many types of gigs, and once you get going you can steer yourself towards the genres you prefer.

Most importantly, by setting goals you can determine what not to practice. If you have no ambitions to be a studio or theater musician, then sight reading could be a lower priority. If you want to be the first call accompanist in town, then sight reading should dominate your practice routine.

Honest Self Assessment

If you don’t study with a private teacher, then it’s up to you to evaluate your own skills. Record yourself whenever you can, date the recording, and save it. I learn the most from video taping my gigs. Seeing myself play live really helps diagnose the weaker points in my guitar playing and musicianship. I find recording to be the best method of self assessment available, and listening to recordings made over a year ago really helps me chart improvements.

One Hour Before Noon

If you need to force some practice time, I’ve found that the One Hour Before Noon rule works for me. Regardless of what I have going on each day, I can get up and give myself one hour of dedicated practicing before noon. The idea is that once your day starts, you’ll have more distractions and find more excuses to not pick up your instrument. But if practicing never happens later in the day, at least you had your hour before noon.

I’ve also found that by giving myself this hour I can warm up for the day. Then if I have a few minutes here and there, I can pick up the guitar and my hands feel ready to go. These small chunks of time add up to more hours.

Practice Before Bed

When you learn something new, your brain forms new connections, or synapses, between neurons. Through repetition, these synapses become stronger and permenant, which is essentially how learning takes place. There have been studies that suggest sleep enables these connections to become stronger.

Understanding this idea in college, I never pulled an all nighter. I also discovered that if I practiced a new transcription or etude before going to sleep, it was significantly easier to play the next morning. If you’re into efficiency, practice the really hard stuff right before bed, and your Hour Before Noon will be even more productive.

Practice in Your Head

I used to have an hour commute between home and work, and it was a great time to zone out and visualize myself playing guitar. Because a great deal of playing music is just knowing what you’re going to play, visualization can be highly effective. Your brain won’t know that you don’t have your instrument, yet you’ll continue to strengthen the connections between neurons.

Tip: You need to be idle to do this properly. I don’t recommend visualization while driving or listening to your significant other.

Keep Your Instrument Easily Accessible

Most musicians don’t have a problem keeping their instruments out of the case and ready to play, except after a gig. I’ve gone days without even realizing my guitar is still in it’s case (granted I have several sitting out), but now I take it out after getting home from every gig, so it’s ready to go the next morning. Sometimes, just the act of doing this leads to an hour or so of inspired practicing before bed.

Practice vs. Maintenance

One mistake many beginners make is thinking that noodling counts as practicing. Professionals make the same mistake, but the noodling is just fancier.

I used to be a competitive distance runner. When you first start training, you make huge improvements through relatively less intense workouts. When you reach your peak fitness level, it takes more intense workouts to make incremental improvements.

It’s easy for a skilled musician to just keep working on what’s already in their bag because it’s full of great things to play. There’s nothing wrong with this, but sometimes we need a little shove to get outside our comfort zones and work on the stuff we can’t do. At this stage it takes a lot more work to show smaller signs of improvement, but unlike distance running, the improvement is virtually limitless. Be honest with yourself and know whether you’re practicing or maintaining.

Turn off the Computer

We have control over everything that distracts us, yet it can be so difficult to get away from something like your computer or TV. Just remember, nobody will really care if you saw the latest episode of American Idol, or are caught up on all your blogs. But you will only disappoint yourself if you screw up on the next gig!

Schedule Practice Time

Finally, set aside the time for yourself. Allow yourself a solid chunk of several hours a few times a week to really practice. Put it in the calendar ahead of time so you don’t book yourself with other activities. I’m not suggesting you turn down a paying gig, but schedule your social life around your personal improvement. I know people that work their schedule around their favorite TV shows, so I doubt your friends will mind!

Now then, get away from your computer and give me 15 minutes of arpeggios!

Published by

Cameron Mizell

New York guitarist Cameron Mizell is involved in a wide variety of musical projects. He has released many of his own albums independently, including his latest, Tributary. Cameron's experiences as a musician and former record label employee give him a unique perspective on the musician industry, which he enjoys sharing on MusicianWages. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

27 thoughts on “Establishing Good Practice Habits as a Professional Musician”

  1. Great article Cam.

    I’ve done the same thing re: leaving my gear in it’s case for days after gigs, that’s a good thing to point out.

    Personally, I find that I’ve actually become much better at practicing as I get older. I think I was 25 before I really figured out how to practice effectively.

    That’s another good point your article brings up – I think there’s a misconception that musicians are best right when they get out of music school and they only maintain or get worse as they get older. I don’t know where that paradigm comes from, but it’s totally wrong.

    1. Well, I’m rather young and I’d love a head start on your experience in efficient practicing. I hope I smell an article on that subject soon!

      1. Paul, for younger or more novice players, I recommend working on technique and emulating great players. Study those who are great at your instrument and try to play exactly what they play, exactly how they play it. After emulating 10 of your favorite musicians, you’ll develop your own sound.

  2. Good points all around. The computer thing is especially hard for myself and the rest of Gen Y.

    I saw Michel Camilo, a brilliant Latin jazz pianist, play at the Sheraton in Salt Lake City a few months back. Incredible. He practiced ten hours a day during high school and college. Absurd to even imagine.

    As a songwriter, I find doing things in my head without an instrument to be more productive. When I get an instrument, I noodle (hehe) rather than create. I’ve learned a lot noodling, especially as I make efforts noodle intelligently, but I’ve wasted a lot of time with an instrument in front of me. I think an important thing for any professional musician to learn is theory. Even music school graduates have more to learn, be it classical or jazz or non-Western classical theory. So if you practice guitar for two hours a day, I think it’s a good idea to learn theory for a half hour from a book or from forums or from a teacher.

    Also, I think that we get to a point where we can only practice so much a day before we fatigue. I think maybe an hour of guitar practice and then an hour of a new instrument, piano or harp or drums or violin or voice. We have so much to learn. There’s no excuse to waste time.

    Again, great article, Cameron.

    – Stephen Cope

  3. Good tips here. “Playing in your head” is something most people would never imagine could help but I can vouch for that one in particular. Best bit is of course – you can do it anytime anyplace!

    Keeping your instrument accessible too is a must. As a guitar player I leave an acoustic leaning against a wall in the house where I’ll pass it several times a day. At least once I’ll pick it up and run through a couple of those trickier runs.

    Thanks for the piece


  4. Hi Cameron, I’m a professional violinist. I freelance in the MD/DC area and also play in NYC. I play the classical repertoire, I do lots of strolling stuff and I also improvise. Your article is very excellent! I think that finding adequate practice time is a challenge for all musicians. I agree that “practicing in your head” can be very helpful. I do it with improvising. I will start out by hearing a tune “straight” in my head and then I will explore the possibilities for what I can do with the tune. Then when I get out my violin, it’s so much easier because I’ve already worked it out in my head. As professional musicians, we always have to use time very wisely because each minute is precious. Carolyn

  5. I am an singer/songwriter, but I have added piano in my shows. I find it so hard not to get distracted while playing. What can I do when I say to myself you are playing this piece while singing it? OH goodness!!!! I can play the piece which is a simple version of Misty, but I get scared during the show. I can play it just beautiful before the show begins. I am now remembering some of the song by memory.

    Thank you,

  6. Thank you for these encouraging tips! I’ve been burned out musically and now I feel refreshed and ready to stop being lazy and schedule some fun yet serious practice time!!!!

  7. Can I learn three intruments and singing at the same time is it possible. I love guitar,bass,violin,and sing I’d like to be really good at these things.

  8. This is a great article! I would just add how important warming up is. I’ve had to learn this the hard (and painful) way. There’s an excellent book out there called “The Art of Practicing,” and I highly recommend it. It has helped me focus my practicing habits as well as the all-important warm-ups I do everyday now.

  9. Excellent points, especially practise vs. maintenance is something I have never thought of. You are 100% right.
    One thing I find great and do now since 7 years: I have a chronometer and measure exactly how many hours and minutes I practise. I call that net practise time. At the same time I log the times from when to when I was trying to practise like 9h15-9h30/15-18/2210-2250. I put al this info in a spreadsheet and count the net time I was practising over the whole years. It is a great motivation and eye opener on how many hours of the dedicated practise time was used.

  10. Thank you for this article, covering all the basics, and you are right that even the professional musician can become a bit aimless in practice habits.

    I especially liked your point about practicing before bed because usually this is the only time I get to practice so it’s good to know that it is a beneficial time!

    I actually write a blog dedicated to this subject. One of the difficult things with all musicians can be motivation at times, so this blog also helps to inspire practice, in fact, that’s what it’s called.

    Would be great if you could pay me a visit and also if you’d like to write something for me, please let me know, maybe we could swap articles?

    Thanks again.


  11. Great article. I have struggled for several years and continue to struggle with the idea of practice vs. noodling. I find that, while I know the difference between the two, I usually pick up a guitar, realize that I have no idea what to practice, and wind up noodling for a while. How do I fix this?

    1. You need a goal of what you want to accomplish when you practice, otherwise you just noodle. You could start with some basic guitar warm up exercises, or learn a new song. My long-standing rule is “When in doubt, the Beatles.” If you want a personalized practice routine, find a good guitar teacher.

  12. Hello Cameron
    You have pointed out some very natural and intelligent practice concepts. Thanks for that.

    I can add to that by saying that I am very excited to announce the release of my new eBook on How to Practice Music Effectively. This book is for anyone who needs to improve their music practice method. It is good for absolute beginners through to professional musicians and music teachers.

    Kind regards,
    George Urbaszek

  13. Great article Cameron! And I don’t know how manny times I’ve fooled myself by “goofing” around whit stuff I already know and calling it practice. That’s why goals are so important, that way it’s easier to judge yourself If you’re practicing or just maintaining.

    An for us drummers it’s often hard to have our instrument easy accessible so we can slip in some small chunks of practice here and there. BUT a pair of sticks and a practice pad can make a huge difference in your playing. You will notice how much improvement you’ll make every time you DO get the chance to actually sit behind your kit and practice.

  14. Great article. Im doing an essay on music and i need the organisation of this website for the citation. If there isn’t one, well, just say so. Thanks

  15. I appreciate this article so much. I am the jr member of a band. The least experienced and possibly getting burned out from never being good enough. I also don’t practice like I should. I am a boom chick piano player and I guess use the fact that I only play chords, so “what is there to practice”. I know better. I also think I’ve been doing more noodling than hard practice. My GOAL is to start playing the melody. This will give me enough to do till I die of old age. Thank you for being there. My band mates will be happier. Me too.

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