5 tips for practicing when you don’t have your instrument

Life happens. I don’t know how many times in life the perfect practice session is hijacked by life. Just the other day I had my coffee in hand and I was headed to my studio for a great morning of practice when my son came downstairs and said ‘hey dad, I slept in, can you drive me to school?’ There went an hour of my time and signified the death of my practice day.

Sometimes I think we forget that a good learning session doesn’t necessarily need to be an hour or more at your instrument. Sometimes I think that we forget we have pockets of time in our day where we can be productive and build our knowledge base. Are you aware that we can have a good learning session away from our instrument,l build our knowledge, increase our understanding and make our next practice session more productive?


I love this one because it can be used for students of any age and any skill set. A brand new beginner can take the song they are working on and simply write down the letter names. Someone a little more advanced could write down the chord names or analyze the song looking for key changes or chord progressions. You could analyze the song so you have a better understanding of the song to help you improvise over the changes or have a broader base of knowledge for your own compositions. Even advanced students could work on composition or applied analysis with a pencil and paper rather than their instrument.

The big key to this writing exercise is DO NOT write on the actual sheet music. Why? Simple if you do it becomes an exercise you will only do once AND you may stop looking at the music and start looking at your handwriting. If a young student writes the letter names under the notes they only get the benefit of the exercise once AND they may start looking at the letters rather than the notes when they practice. A student who analyzes their piece for improvisation may lock themselves into a single scale and miss any other options because they are staring at their analysis. I recommend using a blank sheet of paper to go through this exercise. Write on the paper or photocopy the song and write on the photocopy. The key is that once you have finished writing throw the paper away. Repeating the exercise has value. Just like playing a song over and over will improve your abilities writing and analyzing a song over and over will build your understanding of the song and the exercise.


No, I am not trying to turn you into the next Frank Sinatra or Mariah Carey, but I do personally believe every instrumentalist should also understand the basics and the mechanics of singing. That, however, is a topic for another day. What I want is for a student to look at the sheet of music and be able to sing or hum the melody line. I had a student the other day who was playing her song and inverted a passage. While the left hand was written with an ascending pattern she was played a descending pattern. This is very common with beginner players and as we sang the progression and then played the progression she became aware of her mistake.

It’s not just notes or names, often times students will struggle with the timing of a piece or a passage. By singing or humming it they begin to feel the timing and have a better understanding of what it needs to sound like when they play it on their instrument. For those of you who ‘can’t sing’ (yes I believe EVERYONE can sing) try humming the notes or you can sing the notes under your breath so no one can hear you. If you are on the subway and don’t want to belt it out try just ‘mind singing’ where you hear the tones and the passage in your head but never vocalize a sound.


Ever played a song perfectly then take away the music and you stumble? One of my earliest teachers would tell me that if that happens you don’t really know the song. Memorization is a big part of playing music but it doesn’t always need to be done at the instrument. Take a look at the music, read it bar by bar and visualize playing the song. Can you hear the melody? Do you remember the fingering? Can you “see” the chord progression? All of this can be done without your instrument.

In 2014 the University of Chicago did a basketball study. The basketball players were split into three groups. The first group practiced their free throws an hour every day for 30 days, the second group didn’t practice but visualized successful free throws an hour a day for 30 days. The third group did not add an additional daily hour to their practice routine. After 30 days, the first group improved 24%, the third group didn’t improve at all. The surprise is the visualization group improved 23% without any additional practice touching a basketball. Add “mental” practice to your routine if you don’t have the time to sit and practice.

Listen to a recording

 Music is a language, a beautiful language that is communicated by sound. As humans we learn to speak by listening to people and copying what we hear, music is the same. The written pages give us the advantage of having the language spelled out for us but listening to the song and working to recreate the sound is a big part of learning to play an instrument. If you are working on popular or contemporary or classical music this should be easy because the recordings are easily accessible and very affordable. Exercises or songs from method books can be a little more difficult but you would be surprised at how often these recordings exist. For those of you with a teacher who has an encyclopedia of material in their head with exercises written out on manuscript paper, pull out your phone and ask to record them playing the exercise. Now you have a recording of your teacher playing the exercise they want you to master.

Practice fingering 

You can not get better at playing an instrument unless you actually sit down and play the instrument. Visualization and written exercises are great at some point we need to do some mechanical work and actually put our fingers on the instrument. BUT we can actually prepare for this by practicing the fingering off the instrument. Drummers can move their feet and hands to simulate the motion they would go through when they are playing the drums. Piano players can use a desk or their legs as ‘piano keys’ and go through the fingering they would play. Guitar, brass and woodwind students can tap their fingers to their thumb or even wrap their fretting hand around their non-fretting hand wrist and simulate the fingering motion.

The best part is that all of these things can be done away from your instrument. We have a lot of pockets during the day where we have a few minutes of ‘free time’. For example in the morning when you are having a cup of coffee pull out your music and write your notes. The bus is a great place to sit and read your music and visualize or memorize or sing your song. Sitting in your car, listen to your song a few times through rather than listening to the radio. When watching tv don’t flip channels during the commercials get that tough passage under your fingertips by running your fingers through the song on your lap.

It will only take you a couple of minutes and you don’t need the instrument in front of you. If you add these routines to your day I promise it will make the time you have with your instrument easier and far more productive.