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Deliberate/Efficient Practice


When learning a piece of music or improving my performance of it, I engage in deliberate practice, or as I think of it, efficient practice. The underlying idea is to identify problem areas, work on them separately, then put everything together. As far as I know, this is the fastest way to learn anything that can be separated into pieces.

There are some basic steps:

  • listen
  • research
  • identify problem areas
  • make exercises around the problem areas
  • start over

The following is written for learning existing/cover songs. Something similar works for new pieces.

This approach makes use of a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). If you’re not familiar with them, a good one to start with is Audacity. On a Mac you’ll probably use Garage Band.

Group practices can follow this method as well but they have their own wrinkles.


Listening is the most important step. Listen to your reference version.

Listening means just that; playing is not listening. Often people dive in and try to play along with a new song, which can be fun but is almost certainly going to lead to errors. Attention gets divided and the original gets hidden by their own playing.

Listen in a way that allows you to hear the music as clearly as possible; initially I’ll typically use headphones to minimize distractions. Eventually I let the song play repeatedly while I’m doing other things to let it sink in, then I listen closely again. Do whatever works best for you.


The more you know, the more you’ll understand the song. Remember that music conveys emotions and if you don’t understand a song, you probably won’t be conveying what you want.

At a minimum for cover songs, I find the lyrics and chords. For guitar parts, there’s almost always a tutorial available so I don’t have to discover all that for myself.

For songs in styles that I’m not familiar with, I listen to more things in that style. I might research the song’s history and influences, depending on what my intention is.

Songs in other languages pose their own problems and I’m not addressing those here.

Identify Problem Areas

On a first listen, there might be some sections that will clearly be troublesome and you might start working on those right away. Eventually, when you think you’ve learned enough, play with the reference recording and record both together.

When comparing your playing with the original, it’s best to use separate tracks in your DAW — put the reference on one track and record yourself on another. That way you can make your track louder or isolate it completely.

Once you have a copy of yourself playing with the recording, listen again. Listen for differences between what you’re playing and what’s on the recording. Early on this involves checking for the right notes and timing. Later it might involve checking the tone and texture or other aspects.

NOTE: It might be necessary to compensate for latency between the tracks. That is, what you recorded might be slightly behind the original. To fix that, delete the appropriate amount of your track to line up with the original. If you need to do this, it’s likely that you’ll have to experiment to find the right amount.

Often, the problem areas go by too quickly to hear them completely. In such cases it’s beneficial to slow down the tempo by 10 to 20%, then listen to the slower version.

Make Exercises Around Problem Areas

Only work on the portion where the problem is. Usually this involves learning it very slowly then building up to the desired tempo. When learning new things like this, remember to stay relaxed. For guitar players in particular, I suggest The Principles of Correct Practice for Guitar but I think most people would benefit from its instructions on relaxing while learning. Basically, your body will learn what you practice. If you practice tense, you’ll perform tense and will often not be able to perform at speed or even cleanly.

For particularly troublesome areas, play the passage as many different ways as you can think of. Softer, louder, accents on different beats, different timings. For vocalists, try vowel sounds without consonants; maybe speak the passage in time if it has lyrics. Do these repetitively until you feel comfortable.

NOTE: There might be a fundamental issue that is preventing you from performing a section. In such cases, playing the section repeatedly will probably not help. You’ll need to go farther back in the process and acquire some skill before you’ll be able to proceed. For most of us, this will involve going to a good teacher.

Start Over

Record again — don’t do the whole song! Just do the section you worked on above. If you still hear differences for whatever aspects you’re interested in, repeat the process.

Continue this until you can perform the song as well as you’d like.


Practice only makes perfect when you know how to achieve what you want. There’s no point in playing a piece repeatedly in its entirety when most of it is OK. Focus on the spots where the problems are and you’ll improve much more quickly.

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