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How to Practice Music Without a Teacher

If you’re similar to a lot of music students out there, then the moment summer hits, you find yourself without a teacher. This might be because either you met with your teacher through your school, or because you (or a parent or significant other) decided it wasn’t worth the time and money to take lessons during the summer. Both are fair reasons.

Now, I’d definitely promote taking lessons if laziness is the only reason you aren’t, but! For a lot of people, lessons outside of the structured time of the school year just aren’t feasible. That’s okay. That doesn’t mean you should stop practicing though! Even if you don’t have a teacher to outright guide your weekly practice, you can still get some quality practice done.

List all the things you want to improve in your playing. This can be stream of consciousness. Just spill every little thing that bothers you about your playing. It can range from “I’m flat a lot,” to “My fingers get sore quickly,” to “I think my upper partials in this one place are causing my tone to sound weird.” List EVERYTHING, just to get it on paper.

Choose three and get really specific with those three. Ignore the rest of your list for now. You want to have three items to work on, with little sub-bits that you can focus in on. For example, “I’m flat a lot” could get broken into:

  1. I have bad posture, which is messing with tone production.

  2. I can’t hear myself super well in certain rooms.

  3. I have a hard time with sharps in this key.

  4. My breathing suffers towards the end of phrases, which causes me to fall flat.

  5. etc.

This little chunks are things you can work on during individual practice sessions. Hint: If an item on your list sounds like something your teacher might tell you, then you’re on the right track.

Create a practice plan. This can be as simple as just stating “I will practice X amount of time, Y days a week,” and then sticking to it, or as complicated as setting up a bunch of goals (“I will play this passage 35% faster, that scale at 200 BPM, and this piece will be memorized.”) PLUS scheduling practice times. But have a plan.

Record a practice session at least once a week and compare practice sessions. This gives allows you to actually hear any progress you’ve made. Think of it like giving yourself a masterclass, almost. “Why yes, past me, that was a little sharp there. If you open up the throat and support through your core instead of pushing, then that will probably sound a lot better!” Then go DO that thing, and listen back to that, as well. One of the most important parts of having a teacher is having someone outside of your own head to listen to your sound – listening back to your work allows you to do that for yourself, a bit.

Further tips:

If you record lessons when you have a teacher, listen those past lessons. This lets you go back over the advice your teacher gave you during the year, so you can continue to work on those things.

Listen to your favorite artists and focus on how they produce tone, use their bodies, and other technical things. They’re pretty good, right? See what kind of techniques they use in their own practice.

Similarly, find interviews with your favorite artists and listen to them – they can give valuable insight into how professionals work.

Find masterclasses online and watch them. Half the value of a masterclass is listening to a teacher correct your problems when they’re present in another person. I know Joyce DiDonato has some masterclasses up online, as well as many other famous performers.

Find masterclasses in your area, and see if you can attend them. Most are free! If you live in an urban-ish area, you can probably find a masterclass series near you to go and watch in person.

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