Sure-Fire Practice Techniques

November 29, 2016

Faythe Freese is professor of organ at the University of Alabama School of Music. She recorded Faythe Freese à l’Orgue de l’Eglise de la Sainte Trinité, on the landmark instrument where Guilmant, Messiaen, and Hakim were titular organists. As a Fulbright scholar and an Indiana University/Kiel Ausstausch Programme participant, she studied the works of Jean Langlais with the composer in France and the works of Max Reger with Heinz Wunderlich in Germany. Freese studied with Marilyn Keiser, Robert Rayfield, William Eifrig, and Phillip Gehring, and coached with Montserrat Torrent, Ton Koopman, Pieter van Dijk, Dame Gillian Weir, Simon Preston, and Daniel Roth. A DVD, Sure-Fire Practice Techniques, which includes demonstrations of practice techniques, is available from The American Organist: 212/870-2311, ext. 4318.

When Pablo Casals (at age 93) was asked why he continued to practice the cello three hours a day, he replied, “I’m beginning to notice some improvement.” Efficient, systematic practice is a necessity for learning music quickly. As a career educator, I am aware that organ students often lack the proper practice tools. This article offers suggestions on ways to improve and render practice sessions more efficient and productive. 


Good habits or bad habits?

Learning notes is hard work, which is why music is called a discipline. No short cuts exist for learning repertoire. The goals of complete musical understanding and technical perfection can be realized only by developing intelligent practice and study methods until they become habits.

The brain is hard-wired to operate on habit. We carry all habits, whether good or bad, for a lifetime, encoded in chemicals and stored in our brains. New, good habits never really replace bad habits but rather displace them and make the old habits less prominent. Pursued long enough, new habits become stronger than old habits; however, any backsliding of the new habits allows the old habits to resurface. We must strive to create good rather than bad habits, so let us begin with good practice habits—which are an example of self-regulated learning.


Components of self-regulated learning

According to educational research, four components of self-regulated learning are required to attain high-level performance. The student must be able to:

• plan, monitor, and regulate his or her learning activities through self-awareness (metacognitive strategies);

persist at a difficult task and block out distractions (management and control); 

• organize material and cognitively engage in rehearsal; 

• assess progress and determine the next step required to accomplish a goal. This requires perseverance and tenacity—the drive and motivation to follow through, even in the face of failure. 

During my doctoral studies at Indiana University, my teacher Marilyn Keiser requested that I perform the solo organ version of the Requiem by Maurice Duruflé. The work was to be performed in one month; in two weeks, I was to be ready to play piano accompaniment for chorus rehearsals. This assignment took real perseverance, although fear alone served as a great motivator! Another recent experience of mine was learning, in one month, the orchestral reduction of Benedicite by Ralph Vaughan Williams, while simultaneously, within a week, learning both the solo and the organ/brass versions of Grand Choeur Dialogué by Eugene Gigout. Perseverance was imperative to becoming performance ready. Music that is exceedingly difficult accompanied by time restrictions requires the musician to be tenaciously persistent. 


Eternal Principles

Self-regulated practice is enhanced by observing the following “Eternal Principles:”

1. Keep practice fresh by avoiding mechanical and unthinking practice. Through body and mind awareness, try to determine what is required to elevate the music to the next level. Avoid hasty practice, keeping tempos slow until the mind, hands, and feet can negotiate the notes. Above all, vary the practice techniques.

2. Practice immediately after a lesson so that the points made by your teacher are easily recalled.

3. Avoid playing incorrect notes from the very start. If an incorrect note is played, complete the phrase, then repeat the passage correctly several times. Also, stop on the corrected note and say the name of the note aloud. A word of caution: do not stop and fix errors as they occur, since this stopping and backing up to “fix” can become a bad habit that is difficult to break. Remember, all of our experiences, whether good or bad, are encoded in chemicals and stored in our brains.

4. After phrases and sections of a composition have been mastered at a slow tempo, build tempo. Phrases that are not yet solid require repetitious, slow practice in subsequent practice sessions.

5. Always practice at a steady tempo. Refrain from playing easy passages fast and difficult passages slowly, rather, select a sustainable tempo at which notes can be played accurately.

6. Place brackets around difficult, trouble areas and devote the most time to these sections. The most inefficient practice is to repeatedly start at the beginning of a piece and play to the end. 

7. Practice in segments, stopping and resting at the first sign of tension. Short periods of mindful, brain-engaged practice are far more productive than four hours of mindless drilling. One should attempt practicing in shorter segments such as 30-minute to one-hour intervals, three to four times daily. Stop, move away from the console, and think about the music. Physical activity such as working out in the gym or mowing the lawn refreshes the mind and body so that practice may be resumed anew. 

8. Once the notes have been learned, register the piece and practice operating mechanical elements such as drawing stops, pressing pistons, opening and closing swell shades. Mechanical skills should be incorporated as early as possible and practiced regularly to achieve total mastery. 

9. Practice on consecutive days. Practice cannot be skipped for two days and made up on day three by tripling the practice time. Time lost equals notes lost.

10. Perform for others. Practicing alone, sequestered away in a practice room is a completely different experience than playing publicly. Public performances, which can prove stressful, benefit the musician by informing how to cope with performance anxiety. Organists may try “breaking in” their new repertoire for the church congregation, who in turn may offer fresh insights into the musical presentation. Be discerning, however: not all congregational comments are appropriate! 

11. Avoid distractions, a key offender being the cell phone. Turn it off. Other distractions can creep into your consciousness as focus deteriorates. Change your place of practice—for instance, move to the couch and study the score.


A practice management plan

 The following practice management habits promote self-regulated learning. First, determine a final tempo goal and mark it at the top of the music. Second, prepare a practice checklist (see the sample, above), practice diary, practice log, or weekly practice evaluation. Third, devote a specific amount of time for developing technique, learning new music, memorizing, and polishing music. Set daily practice goals such as, “Today, I will learn the notes of this piece at this new tempo,” or “Today, I will register this piece and learn the piston pushes at half tempo.” 


Getting ready: 

Score preparation

A blank score without fingering and pedaling markings is a possible indicator that the fingers and feet are learning different “jobs” with each repetition. The remedy is to mark the fingering and pedaling sufficiently so that the practice techniques discussed later can be successfully executed. Fingering and pedaling should be marked according to the economy of motion principle. Substitutions should be saved as a last resort since they require extra motion. Time and effort is expended to mark fingering and pedaling, therefore be sure to follow the indicated markings always. If, after a week of diligent practice, the markings still feel awkward, then and only then, alter them. Marking the score is important for both early and modern fingering.

When a piece is relearned years from now, a new fingering may be discovered that accommodates the maturation of knowledge such as the learning of historical performance practice or a change in hand musculature or technique. By all means, change your markings as needed.


Warm up your hands and feet—Daily!

A strong, healthy technique enables the musician to play any music, no matter the difficulty. The following items are a partial list for a daily warm-up routine: manual scales on piano and organ; pedal scales; arpeggios on piano and organ; and use of technique books such as: Method of Organ Playing by Harold Gleason; The Virtuoso Pianist by Charles-Louis Hanon; 101 Exercises, op. 261 by Carl Czerny; 51 Übungen by Johannes Brahms; and Études, opp. 10 and 25 by Frédéric Chopin.


A baker’s dozen: Techniques for learning notes

The following practice techniques may be employed alone and in combination:

1. Hands alone.

2. Feet alone.

3. Hands together.

4. Right hand and pedal together.

5. Left hand and pedal together.

6. All parts together.

7. Select odd registrations in each hand to bring out the lines and toy with your concentration.

8. Register with a 4 flute for clarity.

9. Practice even notes in uneven rhythms with a metronome at slow tempo; L=Long, S=Short. Slow rhythmic practice increases control and speed of learning the notes because muscle memory is created as the long, accented notes get “into” the fingers. By switching to a S-L rhythm in subsequent repetitions, the long notes are played by alternative fingers, thereby enhancing the muscle memory and getting notes “into” the alternate fingers quickly. Another reason that rhythms work so well when there is a string of short notes followed by a long note, there is a momentary “let up,” or a chance to collect one’s wits while paused on the long note. After every permutation of the long-short rhythms has been played, the organist will note that when playing the music as written great control and clarity has been achieved. Care should be taken to play legato with arm weight, even if staccato is indicated, thus furthering the speed of note learning. Altering rhythms with each repetition also lends itself to mindful, productive rehearsing. Additional rhythms are:

Triplets: L-S-S; S-L-S; S-S-L.

Four sixteenths: L-S-S-S; S-L-S-S; S-S-L-S; S-S-S-L; L-S-S-L; S-S-L-L; S-L-L-S; L-L-S-S; L-L-L-S; L-L-S-L; L-S-L-L; S-L-L-L.

Any additional patterns one can devise.

The “mirror” technique to rhythm practice is “no-rhythm” practice, which removes the “momentary let-ups” naturally occurring in the music, forcing you to keep thinking ahead in the score.

10. Backwards practice with and without metronome. This practice system keeps you out of the “I just want to hear what it sounds like” mode and is also a memorization technique. It is imperative that the score has been fingered and pedaled before embarking on backwards practice. Example 1, from the Prelude in E Minor, BWV 548, begins with hands and feet together in m. 16 on the last eighth note. Play a dotted rhythm to the bar line employing the metronome at about 40 to the eighth note. Should this tempo be too quick, start with a tempo that is manageable. Begin the next repetition on beat three, in rhythms, and play to the bar line. Next, start on the second half of beat two and play to the bar line in a different rhythm. With each repetition, the metronome is moved up by one click. Change the rhythms from L-S to S-L and also play as written, thereby keeping practice fresh and the brain engaged. If a note is missed, do not stop to fix it as the note will be fixed on subsequent repetitions. It is entirely possible to learn a page of music, up to tempo or fairly close to the goal tempo within a 45–60 minute practice session. 

11. Inside Out Practice with or without metronome. Again, it is important that the score be marked with fingerings and pedaling. Bracket a difficult section on the score and begin in the center of that section. In Example 2, from the Sonata in D Minor, BWV 527, let us hypothetically identify the downbeat of m. 117 as the center of a difficult segment. Begin at m. 116, beat 3, and progress to m. 117, beat 2. Play in one of the following rhythms: L-S-S, S-L-S, or S-S-L, or play as written. The next repetition begins at m. 116, beat 2, and finishes at m. 117, beat 3. Alter the rhythm as desired and move the metronome up by one click with each repetition. 

12. Slow to Fast Practice with metronome. Prepare the score extensively with fingerings and pedaling (see Example 3). Set the metronome at a tempo that promotes note accuracy with hands and feet together. In Example 3, with hands and feet together, begin in m. 119 and play to m. 125 in rhythms. On the next repetition, move the metronome up one click and change the rhythm. Use the metronome to “push” the tempo; however, if the playing becomes erratic and inaccurate, decrease the metronome tempo and rebuild the tempo again. 

Caveat! The notes that were learned up to performance tempo on the first day will perhaps seem foreign on the second day. Have no fear! On day two, begin the process anew, increasing the tempo from very slow to the performance tempo. You will note that the beginning tempo on the second day and subsequent days will not be quite as slow as the first day. Your recall of the notes from day to day will be quicker as well. Soon you will be playing the notes with ease and facility.

13. Piano practice: for every 15 minutes of organ practice, practice one hour on the piano, employing rhythms and slow practice. Remember: practice scales! Practice arpeggios! This practice can also be done on harpsichord and/or clavichord, so long as you play with sufficient weight into the keys, so as to achieve the results described in No. 9 (Rhythm Practice) of the Baker’s Dozen Techniques listed above.


Polishing the music 

Polishing music is a necessary and sometimes arduous task. In addition to the aforementioned techniques, try the following methods:

1. Practice with both eyes closed. Not only does this test the memory, but one is able to visualize the hands and feet as they move across the keys. 

2. Practice with the dominant eye closed. In learning particularly difficult musical passages, one eye may be blind folded, preferably the dominant eye (see Notes). The success of this technique is possibly due to the addition of a new element that interrupts the performer’s focus, thereby causing the musician to heighten his or her awareness.

3. Score visualization or mental practice. Visualization is the imaginary rehearsal of a skill minus muscular movement or sound, executed away from the organ. In the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, the United States diver, Greg Louganis, was consistently awarded 10s for his dives. When asked how he performed at such a consistently high level, he referenced visualization. That is, he sat on the bench away from the diving platform and visualized every motion of his dive, which included walking to and climbing the ladder, approaching the edge of the platform and standing, poised, readying himself for departure from the platform, the take-off, his position in the air, and entry into the water—without moving a muscle. He visualized perfection every time and then set out to accomplish that vision.

Within a musical context, the performer sits away from the organ console with a score and visualizes playing the work from beginning to the end. The performer “hears” the music and “sees” the hands and feet moving across the keys, visualizing a perfect performance. An added benefit of visualization is the quieting effect on the racing heart and the centering of the mind, a positive counter for performance anxiety.

4. Slow practice at half or ¾ tempo. Play only once a day at performance tempo. Playing repeatedly at performance tempo tends to break down the work, rendering it sloppy.

5. Dead manual practice while hearing the music internally.

6. Record yourself and listen critically with a score. Mark the score where necessary.


Maintaining performance-ready music and bringing old music back

Many of the above techniques can be employed, but slow practice on piano and organ, playing at ½ to ¾ tempo, isolating challenging segments, and practicing in rhythms are particularly beneficial.



Students seeking to perfect their musical art must utilize every available tool in terms of practice techniques. Employing “Sure-fire” practice techniques regularly will develop time-saving and energy efficient habits that involve the necessary components of self-regulated learning: metacognitive strategies, management and control, cognitive engagement and strategies, and self-efficacy. The diligent student engaged in systematic and efficient practice sessions will be rewarded with a fast and continuous upward trajectory resulting in the attainment of the highest level of musical art. ν


Several methods for determining ocular dominance exist. Here are two: 

a. Miles Test: Extend your arms out in front of you at eye level with palms facing away. Bring your hands together, overlapping the thumbs and fingers, forming a small “V” shaped” hole or window. Select a small object at least ten feet in front of you and view it with both eyes through the window in your hands. While remaining focused on the object, slowly draw your hands closer to you. When you have drawn your hands to your face, the window will be placed over one eye or the other. This is your dominant eye. 

b. Porta Test: Extend your arm out in front of you and align your index finger on a distant object. Close the left eye and observe the location of the object. Now open the left eye and close the right eye and observe the location of the object. When one eye is closed, it is likely that the object disappeared or appeared to shift to one side or the other. When the opposite eye is closed the object probably remained stationary. The eye that kept the object stationary in the view window is your dominant eye. If the object did not appear to move when either eye was closed, this is an indication that you are among the rare individuals who have central vision.



Byo, James. “Teaching Problem Solving in Practice.” Music Educators Journal 91, no. 2 (2004): 35–39 (accessed June 9, 2014).

Cremaschi, Alejandro. “The effect of a practice checklist on practice strategies, practice self regulation and achievement of collegiate music majors enrolled in a beginning class piano course.” Research Studies in Music Education 34 (2012): 223. (accessed April 30, 2014).

Gleason, Harold. Method of Organ Playing, 8th ed., Upper Saddle River, N. J.: Prentice Hall, 1996.

Maynard, Lisa. “The Role of Repetition in the Practice Sessions of Artist Teachers and Their Students.” Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education 167 (2006): 61–72. (accessed June 9, 2014).

Oare, Steve. “Practice Education: Teaching Instrumentalists to Practice Effectively.” Music Educators Journal 97, no. 3 (2011): 41–47, (accessed April 30, 2014).

Pintrich, Paul R. and Elisabeth V. De Groot. “Motivational and Self-Regulated Learning Components of Classroom Academic Performance.” Journal of Educational Psychology 1990, Vol. 82, No. 1, 33–40. (accessed May 30, 2016).


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