10 Lessons From Effective Practicing For Musicians by Benny Greb

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I was on Instagram a bit ago and saw an ad from German drummer Benny Greb about his book, Effective Practicing For Musicians.

Since this is the exact topic I like to write about, I bought it. Pretty much immediately.

But I was even more excited to read it once I saw Benny Play — this guy is good.

You know those drummers who have that ideal blend of accuracy, soul, and style? Like Cory Wong's drummer Petar Janjic or Donald "DJ" Johnson from Khruangbin?

Benny is one of those players.

So after a few weeks of international shipping, it arrived, and I read it.

Here’s some of what I learned:

🎹 10 Lessons from Benny Greb's Effective Practicing For Musicians

#1 Find your “why” before anything else

Figuring out why you're practicing is the first step to effective practice because it guides what you decide to practice. It’s easy to start practicing a technique or style because someone said it worked for them or because it’s popular, but that isn’t guaranteed to be what’s best for you.

The best practice routines are derived from your unique goals as a musician, and you need to establish those goals and review them at consistent intervals. This isn’t unique to music at all — a 2015 study found that people were 33% more likely to achieve their goals after writing them down [*].

To begin thinking about your goals, ask yourself these questions:

  • What does your ideal "sound" sound like? A.k.a. what music do you want to make?
  • What gives you motivation?
  • What makes you excited?
  • What do you listen to the most?
  • Who are your favorite players? Do you want to sound like them?
  • What has helped you progress the most? What hasn’t?

Then, write down your specific goals for music. What you want to sound like, your professional or non-professional aspirations — all of it. This will serve as your umbrella for all future practice sessions.

How to Apply This Idea:

Write down three long-term goals, 3 three-month goals, and three one-month goals. Try to relate them as best as you can to each other.

For example — master cool jazz -> be able to comfortably solo over 3 cool jazz standards -> learn 3 choruses of Paul Desmond solos this month. Reference these when you sit down to plan your next practice session.

#2 Practice until something feels safe

Instead of moving on when you hit something once, don't consider it learned until you achieve mastery. Or as Benny puts it, until it has the “feel-good” factor.

If you feel surprised that you hit a passage or feel like you're flying by the seat of your pants, then you haven't mastered it yet. You should practice each section of a piece or idea until it feels safe.

Remember, music is a language. The goal is to be able to speak (play) a sentence (phrase) naturally. If you have awkward pacing or have to think a lot to nail the phrasing and pronunciation, you haven’t mastered it yet.

How to Apply This Idea:

Instead of hitting a lick or section of a song once, being surprised you hit it, and then moving on, see if you can hit it 3-5 times in a row with absolute integrity and confidence before continuing.

#3 Record yourself practicing

Instead of just thinking or writing down how you think your session went, record audio of yourself practicing — at least once. This will give you a window into how you handle mistakes, how good you are at implementing best practices, and where you waste time when woodshedding.

How to Apply This Idea:

Schedule an hour practice session, record it, and then listen back to your practice. See if you can figure out when you got distracted and why. Pay attention to how much time you actually spent progressing and learning something new instead of repeating what you already knew — it may be less time than you think.

Benny Greb's Whale Method

#4 Try the Whale Method

“How do you eat a whale? Well, the answer is simple: in little bite-size pieces.”

Benny outlines a clever way of breaking down licks and songs into smaller pieces while retaining rhythmic integrity and form.

Basically, you take a measure and slice vertically on each beat, so you start with beat 1 of the first measure, but you only play that beat and wait for the measure to loop around before playing it again. Once you have it down, you move on to the second beat, and then you play both of those beats, stop, and wait for the metronome to come back around. This helps you keep the lick or groove in context as you build your way through the form.

Benny outlines more slicing methods in the books (e.g. slicing horizontally if you’re a drummer), but this is the most universal application of the whale method.

How to Apply This Idea:

Next time you start learning a composition, groove, or solo, grab a metronome and give the Whale Method a shot.

Digging this? Then you’ll love this newsletter. It’s exclusively about getting better at music faster, and you can sign up for free here.

#5 Get comfortable with the fact that making progress in one area means neglect in another.

You can’t do everything at once. We can’t all master jazz, rock, folk, and classical — few of us are fortunate/stick around long enough to master a single genre. We have to make decisions — otherwise, we are doomed to be disappointed in our progress and remain mediocre at many things instead of great at a few things.

Benny points out that the word decision comes from the Latin word decidere, which means “to cut off”. It’s okay to double down on something at the neglect of something else. In fact, it’s probably the only way to get where you want to be.

How to Apply This Idea:

After you’ve made your goals, commit to them. If you want to learn how to play funk music but have been holding on to jazz and classical because you feel like you should learn them (but you don’t actually want to sound like that), own it and double down on the music you want to make.

Because we really don't have that much time.

#6 You need to separate playing and practicing

Benny notes that “Practicing is a step-by-step process designed to acquire a certain desired behavior, skill, or mental state through a cycle of execution, evaluation, and adjustment.”

That’s different from playing, which is the act of having fun, improvising, and playing back tunes you know. Both are equally important, but only practicing will improve your playing.

How to Apply This Idea:

Analyze the balance between your practicing and playing. If you aren’t progressing at a rate you’re happy with, you’re probably playing more than practicing or need to reevaluate your goals. If you’re lacking in motivation and feel bored by your instrument, you should consider adding more “fun” into your sessions by adding in a bit more playing.

#7 Playing is as important as practicing

That being said, balance is important. For example, random half-assed attempts from years past aside, I’ve been learning jazz for the past two years and have been working extensively on song forms, transcriptions, and writing my own solos over the changes. I practiced way more than I played, and my improvisation wasn’t improving at the rate I wanted to.

Then, my teacher asked a simple question: “Well, how often do you just play over the changes without writing a solo down or playing a transcribed solo?”

The answer was not much. I needed to incorporate more playing in the style I was practicing. This is when you step back and let what you absorbed in practice come out through playing.

How to Apply This Idea:

Don’t forget that the entire reason you’re practicing is so you can learn how to play a genre or sound a particular way. As good as learning is, we can’t neglect simply playing the music. Take the time to play and notice how your practice is improving your playing. This is a great avenue for finding motivation as well.

10 Lessons From Effective Practicing For Musicians

#8 Planning ahead is like making a grocery list, it just makes everything more efficient.

The best sessions are defined according to your goals and broken down by rough time slots. This is where a journal comes in handy because you can see exactly what you practiced the session before and use that as a starting point.

How to Apply This Idea:

Write down what you practice each day in a journal, outline your next sessions in advance, and try to break out your practice into timed sections, e.g. “20 minutes on Ab Dorian Scale in 4ths, 30 minutes on So What transcription,” etc.

#9 Don't expect perfection with each session

We all have good days and bad days. If you accept that bad days are inevitable, you don’t have to suffer an existential crisis when you’re bombing a song you like to play or failing at soloing over some changes.

How to Apply This Idea:

Remember that consistency is more important than any other factor in practice. If you succeed in showing up frequently, then you’ll make progress regardless of the individual dips and rises that accompany learning any skill.

#10 If you only do it every once in a while, don’t be mad if you only see results once in a while.

I took a hard break from practicing for about 3 years. I was burnt out on music, sick of playing country gigs in Nashville, and didn’t know where my life was headed. And yet, I remember being so annoyed that I was exactly the same guitarist I had been three years earlier. But why? There was no reason I should have been annoyed — I wasn’t practicing, so I wasn’t getting better.

In other words, if you’re not showing up consistently, then nothing will happen. And if you don’t know why you’re not showing up, then you need to think about those goals and inspirations we mentioned in point #1.

How to Apply This Idea:

Recognize that progress is a result of consistency, and if you aren’t putting the time in, you can’t expect to get better. No amount of noodling or occasional practice sessions will fix that, so take a hard look at your goals and get a plan in order.


There you have it. It goes without saying that you’ll get more out of reading the book yourself.

You can buy Benny’s book here.

Written by
Nathan Phelps
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