Photo of man practicing piano“There can be so much to cover in a practice session that it can seem overwhelming.”
The Musician’s Wayp. 6

Even for professional musicians, it isn’t easy to manage large numbers of practice tasks.

But whatever our level of musical development, all of our practice goals stem from two fundamental branches.

One branch involves sharpening our functional abilities by working on technical exercises, practicing sight-reading, and so forth.

The other branch deals with mastering repertoire and preparing it for performances.

To help us organize our tasks and practice efficiently, I divide each branch into distinct zones.

Mastering Repertoire & Building Skills

For repertoire practice, I employ three zones, each of which encompasses distinct tasks involved in maturing repertoire to concert-ready condition. I label those zones, New Material, Developing Material, and Performance Material. 

I split skill-building work into two zones: Technique and Musicianship. 

Capable musicians balance out their practice among those five zones. In that way, they continually learn new pieces, keep older ones stage-ready, and refine their technical and musical powers.

Photo of Zoom H4n Recorder

Zoom H4n

Many musicians, especially students, benefit from documenting their practice aims in each zone. For that reason, the Downloads page at MusiciansWay.com offers free practice sheets, logs, and more.

I also recommend self-recording in practice with devices such as the Zoom H4n (audio only) or Q4n (audio & video).

Below, I briefly summarize strategies and objectives for each practice zone.

The 5 Practice Zones

1. New Material.  Divide a piece into sections, establish an interpretive & technical plan, and then work deliberately in sections at slow tempos. Solve problems as they arise

2. Developing Material.  When we can easily execute a new piece at a slow tempo, it graduates to the Developing Material zone. Then, we increase temporefine our interpretation, and, if appropriate, memorize.

3. Performance Material.  Once a composition nears its final tempo and is performance-ready, it reaches the Performance Material zone. Here, we practice performing it, maintain our memory, and continually elevate our interpretation.

4. Technique.  In this zone, we tackle exercises and etudes, polish scales and arpeggios, and target weaknesses that limit our range or velocity. A metronome is an essential aid, as is a mirror and video-recorder.

5. Musicianship.  The Musicianship zone incorporates sight-reading practice, rhythm drills, improvisation work, applied study of theory and ear training, and the development of composition and arranging skills. For younger students, I include in this zone listening assignments and related repertoire study.

Allocating Time among The 5 Practice Zones

How much of our practice time should we devote to each zone? It depends.

Page 9 of The Musician’s Way contains a sample practice sheet showing how one student allocated his time across the 5 zones. Here are some basic guidelines for all musicians.

Repertoire Practice

In general, it’s best for us to have only a few titles at any one time in the New and Developing Material zones and amass large numbers of accessible, concert-ready pieces in the Performance Material zone. In that way, we can perform concerts and casual gigs without a fuss because we always have ample repertoire prepared.

As a high-stakes concert or audition date nears, though, we might focus mostly on Performance Material. When no performance obligations loom, we might allocate the bulk of our repertoire practice to new and developing pieces.

Technique and Musicianship Practice

All of us need to spend time each day maintaining and developing our skills.

Students have to devote significant amounts of time to the Technique and Musicianship zones to build up higher levels of proficiency. Veteran pros, on the other hand, might focus more on maintaining their existing abilities and therefore work steadily but less intensively in these zones.

Whatever our level, we continually have to adjust how much we practice in each zone according to our needs and the time we have available. And that pursuit of balance becomes easier as we gain facility with practice and performance skills.The Musician's Way book cover

In sum, by using this five-zone structure, I find that we can simplify our practice organization and fuel our motivation to work, thereby growing our creative output throughout our lives.

See Part I of The Musician’s Way for detailed guidelines to practice in each zone.

Want additional help to upgrade your practice, performance, or career skills? Contact me to discuss possible coaching via Skype.

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7 Deep Practice Strategies
Assessing Your Practice Habits
The Power of Specific Goals
Starting Practice with Intention
Varied, Distributed, and Interleaved Practice

© 2017 Gerald Klickstein
Photo © Africa Studio, licensed from Shutterstock