Playing vs. Practicing

Posted on 12:46 pm

I require my students to spend a minimum of 30min/day practicing. I write down what I want them to practice and show them how I want them to work on those goals. My students diligently go home and try to do their best to work on their assignments, but sometimes I will have a student come back with little or no progress. Why? – They have failed to comprehend and apply the principle of playing vs. practicing.


  • running a piece, movement or section of music with or without a specific goal in mind.


  • the act of approaching a piece, movement or section of music with a specific goal, a structured approach for progressing toward that goal, and a system for measuring progress on the goal.

Both playing and practicing need to be part of one’s practice routine, but we don’t call it practicing for nothing. Practicing needs to be goal oriented, structured and measurable if it is to be the most successful.

Goal Oriented

There are many different ways for teachers to make sure students are goal oriented in their practicing. For me, writing down in my students’ practice notebooks weekly goals for each piece of material they are working on works well. There are several reasons for this:

  1. It keeps the student organized. I don’t have students coming back after a week saying, “I didn’t know I was suppose to practice that!” or “I know you told me to change something in this section, but I forget what it was…” Students also have the beginning of a structured approach to their practice time. All they need to do is take the first thing written in their notebook and continue down the list until they have completed their material.
  2. It keeps me and the student accountable. Each week when a student comes back to lesson I focus in on the particular goals that I set for them, often going down the list of things in order. This system helps me remember specifically what I asked them to do. They also know exactly what I will be “testing” them on each lesson.  
  3. For young students that have parents working with them who may or may not have had any musical training it gives the parent something to fall back on after the lesson instead of having to remember all the details of what I wanted them to work on with their child. It is also helpful for those students who have one parent coming to lessons, but maybe another parent working at home with the child. Having all the information recorded by me makes information transfer from one parent to another much easier.

The goals that are recorded in each student’s practice notebook are the things I expect to see progress on the next time they arrive. They are the things that need to be fixed, the WHAT of their practice time.


Practice time needs to be structured in order to make progress on goals. The structure of a practice session is the HOW. Without the HOW, the WHAT will probably not get accomplished. I often write the HOW in my student’s practice notebook as well.

For example: The WHAT might be to play 3rd finger D in tune. The HOW might be to stop on that note and check it with open D, listen for the ring of the note, make sure the 3rd finger is pushed down against the 2nd finger, etc.

The HOW of a student’s practice routine is often taken for granted by teachers. We expect students (especially older ones) to already know how to practice, but the truth is that unless students have learned this skill somewhere else, it’s a new skill that they need to learn just like they are learning a new instrument. We need to be just as diligent in teaching the HOW as the WHAT.


Any kind of structure applied to practicing should be measurable, meaning that there should be a way of knowing on a daily basis how much progress was made on each goal. A lot of the time the structure has an inherent measurable component which makes it easy to track. Other times a measurable component must be applied externally. Here are some ways of measuring progress:

  • section progress – track the number of measures you can play correctly on the first try
  • tempo progress – track how fast you can play a passage correctly each day
  • time progress – track how long you need to work on something before getting it correct
  • repetition progress – increase the number of times you can do something correctly in a row
  • memory progress – track how far you can get in a piece by memory

These are just a few of the ways progress can be measured during practicing. For students with a particular problem making measurable progress I often have them chart their progress on a daily basis in their practice notebook for me to see when they come back the following week. I have had great success with this. Once students have to actually write down their progress, they start making the necessary changes for progress to happen, and start to realize when their practicing is not being structured in a way that will allow for progress to occur.


For our students to be most successful we need to teach them the difference between playing and practicing, when to use each, and how to practice well. Goal oriented, structured, measurable practicing will result in a rewarding and successful learning experience for all. I hope this post will help you and your students get the most out of practicing!

Emily Williams is the creator of Strategic Strings: An Online Course for Violin and Viola Teachers


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