101 Ways to Practice Anything: Variations for Individual Practice, Classroom Teaching, and Ensemble Rehearsals

Since my original 101 Ways to Practice a Scale has gotten a lot of bandwidth since I published it here two years ago, I thought I would expand the list to include some of the strategies I regularly use in private teaching, clinics, and ensemble rehearsals to help students and professionals find new ways to bypass rote repetition and add variation. Many of these ideas are inspired by the pedagogical ideas of Moshe Feldenkrais, extracted from individual lessons and tailored for work with musicians — something I explore extensively in work with string teachers and students in more detailed form in clinics and workshops. Other ideas are influenced by Feldenkrais and many other wonderful educators and musicians I have known, compiled over the years and melded with more recent pedagogical inspirations.

In addition to both physiological and neurological benefits of decreased likelihood of repetitive overuse injuries, variation helps prepare us for an increasing range of performing circumstances (no two are ever the same!), enhances our creativity, and elevates our learning potential by providing us with new sensory experiences generating new ways of development in our functional relationships to playing. I hope that this new list can be just a foundation for many new ideas in your own playing and teaching!

  1. Try a new fingering or bowing.
  2. Where do you normally start? Start on a different measure or a different note in the measure.
  3. Explore a new phrasing; change the climax or overall shape of the phrase.
  4. Create new kinds of articulation by exploring various consonant sounds.
  5. Make a list of textures (fuzzy, rough, silky, sticky, airy, warm, etc.) and experiment with how to create those sounds.
  6. Play with your eyes closed.
  7. Play facing a new direction or in a different orientation (facing a wall, facing out a window, standing on a chair, lying on your back).
  8. Change your acoustic environment (drier, larger, smaller, more resonant).
  9. Play with different shoes, higher, flatter, barefoot, one shoe on and one foot barefoot.
  10. Play with a new orientation for your eyes (looking up, looking down, right, left, or moving your eyes continuously as you play.
  11. Play while moving your tongue (right, left, up, down, sliding along the inside of your teeth).
  12. Extend and flex your toes, knees, hips as you play, bending forward or backwards, or squatting versus standing on your toes.
  13. Play sitting on only one sit bone on one side of the chair/stool, or standing on one foot.
  14. Play while contracting and decontracting your abdominal muscles, buttocks, or muscles of your pelvic floor and notice the effect on your breathing, sound, and freedom of movement.
  15. Sing the tonic at various points during your performance.
  16. Leave out notes while continuing to play in rhythm.
  17. Audiate whole measures in between playing.
  18. Change your position while playing from sitting to standing, walking, or marching.
  19. Record yourself playing and then count out loud along with the recording in various subdivisions of the beat.
  20. Sing or whistle in thirds, sixths, or other intervals with yourself as you play.
  21. Solfege a difficult passage from memory.
  22. Play with the metronome on the off-beats.
  23. Play a duple passage with the metronome in triplets.
  24. Walk backwards while you play.
  25. Play while reading your music upside down.
  26. Play a difficult passage in reverse.
  27. Transpose passages and play them in other keys or other octaves.
  28. Play the notes in between difficult intervals.
  29. Play the notes in between two notes a half-step apart. How many distinct pitches can you play?
  30. Play slowly while walking fast.
  31. Play a fast passage while walking or shifting your weight very slowly.
  32. Play only the tonic, or tonic and fifth, or note of your choice in a passage without changing the rhythm.
  33. Choose one note in a passage to play in another octave (every C or every F, for example).
  34. Play with a varied articulation (slurs could be staccato and staccato could be slurred).
  35. Play a duple passage against triplets on the metronome.
  36. Play each measure with a different subdivision (one measure in 8ths, the next in 32nds, the next in 16ths) without changing the pulse.
  37. Play all of the notes in a difficult run out of order or in a loop starting on a different note and going back to play the beginning at the end.
  38. Accent different notes or beats in a phrase (only beat 2 or only the third sixteenth of every beat).
  39. Play with different rhythms or groupings of notes. Can you group 5 notes at a time in a 4/4 passage?
  40. Change your breathing as you play. Contract your abdomen and fill your chest or push your belly out with each inhalation.
  41. Cue the start of a phrase with a sharp exhalation.
  42. Focus on the breath passing through one nostril or filling one lung.
  43. Practice saying difficult rhythms with new articulations, or with your lips closed, or with your tongue held against the roof of your mouth.
  44. Restrict your breathing on one side by lying on your side or side bending while you play.
  45. Play a difficult rhythm with completely different notes (maybe wide intervals when the notes are in close proximity, for example).
  46. Play a difficult rhythm on two alternating notes.
  47. Play the phrasing you would like to achieve using only one pitch.
  48. Change the mode of a passage from major to minor or vice versa. Add harmonic minor to a major passage.
  49. Create a harmonization or accompaniment for yourself (could be as simple as holding a drone or playing in thirds or sixths). Record and play with it.
  50. Balance a beanbag, bag of rice, or pillow on your head.
  51. Sit on a balance pad, foam roller, or ball.
  52. Stand on a balance board or roller.
  53. Play up against a wall positioning an inflatable ball or balloon along various parts of your spine.
  54. Shift your weight in and out of phase with various movements of playing (string players might move right or left with and against the bow, while wind players might look for other habitual forwards/backwards/sideways movements that accompany different kinds of playing)
  55. Play soundlessly with one hand, then the other. Pianists might finger one hand soundlessly while playing audibly with the other hand.
  56. Observe which ear you use to listen to yourself.
  57. Which eye is more dominant when reading music? Try closing your dominant eye and notice how you might reposition yourself to read.
  58. Which eye dominates when looking at your instrument or your fingers? How is it to look with the other eye?
  59. Do you swallow when you play? Find places to intentionally swallow.
  60. How do you stop or hold your breath when you play something difficult? Can you stop your breath in another way?
  61. How do you use momentum in your playing? Do you throw, spin, spring, grab? Can you achieve the same effect in another way?
  62. How do you use or resist gravity when you play? Do you drop, sink, bounce, press, or hold? What options feel like less work?
  63. How do you use resistance? Do you feel friction, counterpressure, release?
  64. From where do you derive power? From big muscles, little muscles, skeleton, support, weight, speed?
  65. What are the differences in playing something very slowly, very fast, at a “comfortable” speed?
  66. Where does the action come from? Flexing, extending, going both directions equally? Experiment with another option to compare.
  67. What happens between the notes? What is the quality of the movement? Fast, slow, smooth, jerky?
  68. Observe 3 performers of different build, age, or gender playing the same piece. Discern what appeals to you in each.
  69. Listen to 3 performances from different generations or of contrasting interpretation. Find what seems convincing to you in each.
  70. Listen to 5 other works by the same composer. Pay attention to characteristics that have found their way into your piece or which contrast significantly.
  71. Listen to 5 other works by different composers who wrote works during a similar time period. Note the similarities and distinctions.
  72. Listen to 5 works of the same genre from previous stylistic eras. Note ideas which your composer might be exploring that are derived from other works or from other composer’s experimentation with your instrument.
  73. Study etudes written during the same time period as the work you are playing.
  74. Note any changes in instrument technology or performance practice and experiment with modern and older equipment (harpsichords, baroque bows, mouth pieces, tuning, etc.)
  75. Play with a drone or tuner without first tuning your instrument. Can you make adjustments even when your set-up is not idea?
  76. Warm-up with scales in other keys, or chromatics, or modes.
  77. Warm up exploring multiple intervals, seconds, sevenths, fifths, not always tonally. Give yourself new contexts in which to hear yourself.
  78. Warm up with rhythmic challenges. Play in septuples or quintuples or using changes in meter.
  79. Play while moving your instrument in conducting patterns or shapes or signing your name.
  80. Play one measure with only your right hand and the next measure with only your left.
  81. Warm up by improvising on a difficult rhythm or in the key of your piece.
  82. Warm up playing only descending patterns.
  83. Don’t warm up.
  84. Do your “normal” practice routine in reverse order.
  85. Practice in 10 minute intervals, changing what you practice after a time goes off, even if you are not finished.
  86. Practice only 1 measure for a day, but find 101 new ways to play it.
  87. Practice everything pianissimo for a day.
  88. Practice everything without vibrato for a day.
  89. Practice everything with vibrato for a day.
  90. Practice everything legato for a day, finding connections between the note that you haven’t attempted to make.
  91. Practice when you are sad.
  92. Practice when you are feeling on top of the world.
  93. Practice the thing you know you are avoiding.
  94. Write a short story that describes what you think happens over the course of a work.
  95. Tell a short story about what happens in a single phrase.
  96. Sing a phrase or rhythm using words.
  97. Sing a phrase or rhythm using words in a made-up language.
  98. Practice a passage, not until it is perfect, but until you discover something new.
  99. Practice until you feel something you haven’t felt before.
  100. Play like you are a child, then like seasoned soloist, like your favorite musician, or like an amateur who loves music.
  101. Play like you are the only YOU who will ever play this music and nothing else matters.

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