Structured and Unstructured Practice

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“Our goals can only be reached through the vehicle of a plan, in must we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act.  There is no other route to success.”  -Pablo Picasso

Practice does not have to be boring but, like all skill building exercises, must be organized.  Having a plan for your daily practice routine not only helps you prioritize while cultivating basic skills, but also encourages a sense of metacognition.   As Nancy H Barry and Susan Hallam explain in Chapter 10 of the book, The Science and Psychology of Music Performance:

Metacognition refers to the learner’s knowledge about learning itself (i.e. thinking about thinking).  This is central to practice. Metacognitive skills are concerned with the planning, monitoring, and evaluation of learning including knowledge of personal strengths and weaknesses, available strategies (task-oriented and person-oriented), and domain knowledge to assess the nature of the task and evaluate progress toward the goal. (Barry, 2001)


How do we create a practice plan?  I was given a pamphlet when I was young written by flutist Richard Hahn suggesting the following series of exercises which systematically move from the most basic of skills to etudes and finally to larger repertoire.  I have used this system for several years and encourage all of my students to follow the same system to organize their daily routines.

1.  Long Tones (Suggestion: Trevor Wye’s Practice Book on Tone);

2.  Harmonics (Suggestion: Trevor Wye’s Practice Book on Tone);

3.  Scales and Articulation Exercises (Suggestion: Taffanel and Gaubert’s 17 daily exercises, specifically exercise nos. 4, 1 and 2, Reichert’s Seven Daily Exercises using different articulation patterns);

4.  Etudes (Suggestion: Karg-Elert etudes, Jean-Jean etudes or, for beginners, the Rubank series)

5.  Orchestra Excerpts (Suggestion: hold mock auditions for yourself using a digital recorder or your webcam);

6.  Band or Orchestral Music (Suggestion: isolate problematic passages and use your time here to think creatively about how to improve tricky technical problems or create logical color changes);

7.  Repertoire (Solos, Duets, Chamber Music);

…and at the end add a bit of Zen to your practice

8.  Improvisation and/or Sight Reading

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.but the title of this blog is structured and UNstructured practice.  Sometimes you need to switch up your routine therefore maybe 1 or 2 days per week flip this plan in reverse:

1.  Improvise

2.  Solos/Repertoire

3.  Orchestral/Band Music

4.  Orchestral Excerpts

5.  Etudes

6.  Scales/Articulation Exercises

7.  Harmonics

8.  Long Tones

And one day per week, throw all structure out the door and practice what your heart and mind tell you to practice.  It may be unstructured but allowing for a moment of creative outburst is a part of the larger practice plan.

The key is to always have a plan.  By relating smaller parts of our daily practice routine to the bigger picture, we create intrinsic meaning for the music we play by focusing on how we learn, how we improve and how we measure success.

What does your practice routine look like?  Do you have a practice structure similar to this?  Do you have a plan that is vastly different?  Please comment below!


Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.

Pablo Picasso



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