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Specialized Lessons
Perfect Practice

(Re-edited version of Chapter 20 of the Keywheel Theory System.)

There is a cause and effect relationship between practice and ability to play an instrument. In most cases the way a musician practices is the way they will play. The adage, "PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT" is not true. However, "PERFECT PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT " is true.

Some people can practice a lot and make little progress. As an instructor I find that much of my time spent with most beginning and intermediate students is as a practice coach. The sooner a student becomes a self-coach the sooner they will become a good musician.

Concepts need to be physically applied to a musical instrument. Project long-range , past the immediate gratification of "wangin' out a few riffs"*, and ncremental improvement can be steadily made through a proper method of practice.

* "Fun" practice is also important. Besides the entertainment value, it is also the chance for exploration and application of the concepts you have practiced.

Playing music involves the mind and body acting as one. There are inner (mental) goals and outer (physical) goals of practice. This chapter will explore the outer goals. (For the inner goals see MUSIC AS SELF-IMPROVEMENT.)


The outer goals of practice are theory, timing, and technique. Theory is the concept you are practicing and results in the actual musical sound, or relationship of notes. Timing takes into account the duration of notes as well as the coordination of your body movements--playing in even, continuous synchronization. Technique is the proper way to physically play the concept on your instrument.


A musical exercise should be repeated continuously without interruption of the beat. Practice with a metronome. Start slowly--the only thing you must be in a hurry to do is to self-correct. (You are also practicing the mental virtue of patience, overcoming frustrations you never knew you had!) Attain non-effortless consistency and perfection, then gradually speed up. (When you learn to love practicing in this manner you will make great leaps forward.)

The following is an example of perfect practice using an ascending C major scale played for one measure. Since I am primarily a stringed-instrument player I will illustrate this using the down-up stroke technique of a pick.

THEORY (specific)--C MAJOR SCALE (key of no sharps/no flats), half steps are between E-F and B-C


count scale degree
  1  2
  3  4  
  5  6  
  7  8
or/and name notes
  C  D 
  E  F 
  G  A 
  B  C 
beat/timing (two notes per beat)
tap foot on beat




technique (right hand)
  down-up   down-up   down-up   down-up

The above exercise integrates all aspects of practice. It involves being aware of the content (C major scale), it's definition, the timing, and the coordination (including tapping the foot on the down-beat). And of course it will also include the sound.


1.) An exercise can be broken down into manageable pieces. Each piece can be repeated until consistently perfect, then pieced back together into the whole. The above exercise can be broken down into four one-beat pieces (two notes per beat). C-D, E-F, G-A, and B-C can all be rehearsed separately. Then link them to form two-beat pieces, C-D-E-F and G-A-B-C. Then link the two-beat pieces to form the entire four-beat exercise.

2.) First automatize the left hand position by repeating the notes continuously.

3.) Then focus on the right hand, picking down on the down-beat and up on the up-beat.

4.) Tap the foot only when the two previous steps are mastered. Be sure to hold the foot down as you are playing the up-stroke. (If co-ordination is a source of frustration see special lesson RHYTHM .)

5.) Count the beat as you are playing and tapping.

6.) Count scale degrees, then name the notes as you are playing and tapping.

7.) Sing it with the instrument, then without. (This builds hearing differentiation skills. Singing is proof that you can hear it.)

8.) Build up speed with a metronome. Be patient--If you can't play it slow correctly you can't play it fast. (Self-correct at a slower speed.)

9.) When practicing an exercise isolate and focus on the part that is technically the most difficult for you to play. Repeat it thoroughly until it becomes consistent. This way you will constantly leap-frog your abilities until your technique eventually covers every situation.

10.) Think long range--the skills involved in the above exercise are accumulative and will carry over into whatever concept you practice next.


Write down your own fingering charts for scales, chords, etc. before you practice a concept. This will aid in remembering the patterns and will also help develop visualization skills.


Practice can also be done mentally by visualizing yourself going through the motions of playing an exercise, progression or song, and even improvising. (Many professional athletes use visualization techniques to improve performances.)



A way to unlock the versatility of a scale position as well as quickly and vastly improving your technique and ear is to play it in sequences , that is, in a continuous series of related musical phrases. Sequencing synthesizes improvisation by making you think ahead (decision making skills) and can blossom into an abundance of licks. (Sequences are often heard in skillful improvisation.)

A common sequence is ascending fours and can be applied to any major or minor scale. A four-note ascending phrase is played from each note ("target" note) in a scale, in succession. (The exercise is written in scale degree and target notes are in bold type.)


  1-2-3-4   2-3-4-5 3-4-5-6  4-5-6-7    5-6-7-8 . . . 

The same sequence can be played in reverse as descending fours .


  8-7-6-5   7-6-5-4   6-5-4-3   5-4-3-2   4-3-2-1   . . . 

EXERCISE: Sequencing the Major Scale

Sequence the C major scale (or any scale) using the following three-step method.

STEP ONE: Practice each separate 4-note piece non-stop until each is equally fluent. Use the entire range or fingering position on your instrument. Identify the name of each starting note.

STEP TWO: Practice neighboring pairs, linking sequences that start upon scale degrees 1 & 2, 2 & 3, 3 & 4, etc. Practice each pair until each is equally fluent. The multiple repeat method works good here. Play each sequence four times each non-stop, then two, then finally one time each.

STEP THREE: Sequence the entire scale non-stop. Ascend and descend the full range or fingering position of your instrument.

This method may be used with any major or minor mode.



Sequences should first be played as eighth notes, or two notes per beat. Be sure to use the perfect practice technique of counting while tapping your foot on each beat. Start at 60 beats per minute and gradually increase to 120 bpm. Then go back to 60 bpm and play the sequence as sixteenth notes, or four notes per beat. (Tap your foot at the beginning of each four-note piece.) Gradually increase to 120 bpm or faster.

Playing fast (especially in performing situations) sometimes creates a mental and physical anxiety. This can often be controlled by relaxing and breathing deeply.


EXERCISE: Sequencing the Pentatonic Scale

Use the same three-step method to sequence the C major pentatonic scale (C-D-E-G-A-C) by ascending and descending fours.

ascending fours:


scale degree

  2-3-5-6  3-5-6-8(1)   5-6-1-2    6-1-2-3     . . . 

 C-D-E-G  D-E-G-A  E-G-A-C  G-A-C-D  A-C-D-E    . . . 

descending fours:


scale degree

  6-5-3-2   5-3-2-1   3-2-1-6    2-1-6-5     . . . 

 C-A-G-E  A-G-E-D  G-E-D-C  E-D-C-A  D-C-A-G    . . . 

This exercise can be applied to any major or minor pentatonic.



Here are some other common sequences shown using the degrees of a scale. (They can also be adapted to pentatonics.)

Up three and return (ascending)

 1-2-3-1   2-3-4-2   3-4-5-3   4-5-6-4   . . .

Up three and return (descending) Start on the higher octave. (1=8)

 1-2-3-1   7-1-2-7   6-7-1-6   5-6-7-5   . . .

Down three and return (ascending)

 3-2-1-3   4-3-2-4   5-4-3-5   6-5-4-6   . . .

Down three and return (descending) Start on the higher octave. (1=8)

 1-7-6-1   7-6-5-7   6-5-4-6   5-4-3-5   . . .

Thirds (ascending)

 1-3  2-4  3-5  4-6 . . .

Thirds (descending) Start on the higher octave. (1=8)

 1-3  7-2  6-1  5-7 . . .

Thirds-reverse (ascending)

 3-1  4-2  5-3  6-4 . . .

Thirds-forward (descending) Start on the higher octave. (1=8)

 1-3  7-2  6-1  5-7 . . .

Triplets (6/8) (ascending)

 1-2-3  2-3-4  3-4-5  4-5-6   . . .

Triplets (descending) Start on the higher octave. (1=8)

 1-7-6  7-6-5  6-5-4  5-4-3   . . .

Triplet return (ascending)

 1-7-1  2-1-2  3-2-3  4-3-4   . . .

Triplet return (descending) Start on the higher octave. (1=8)

 1-2-1  7-8-7  6-7-6  5-6-5   . . .

Once you get the idea of sequencing you can make up your own using modes, pentatonics, arpeggios, and even combinations of all three. (A good book of eight-note musical sequences is Hanon, The Virtuoso Pianist, Part 1 . Twenty sequences are presented in the key of C but are easily transposed to any key on any instrument.)