The 5 Levels of Practising

I can’t remember if I’ve posted on this before.  It is in fact one of the most misunderstood principles of learning to play.  Get this one wrong and you sound like a learner.  Get it right and you’ll sound professional, no matter at which level you are playing.  It is an attitude thing.

Basically, getting to know a piece of music is like discovering a world.  A fantasy world that will take you on an adventure – if you let it.  And the sheet music is the map to the treasure.

Knowing this gives you power.  Here is a 5-level method of perfecting a piece (& moving beyond perfection to a really moving performance) :


Level 1:  Sight-reading

Let’s presume you are starting a piece you’ve never heard before.  You play through it; depending on your ability, you play it note-by-note, bar-by-bar or phrase-by-phrase.

The important thing here is to “get” the melody.  The music is choppy and doesn’t make much sense until you can “hear” it.  Every bar brings new surprises.  You follow the “instructions” of the music, simply play it down and try to listen for the melody and the themes.

Key question:  Where is the music?

Where does the music live at this point?  It lives on the page.  It is notes on paper.

If you stop at this level:

In my teaching I usually guide you through this process in the actual lesson.  But if you then don’t practise at all, that is where your competency stays for that piece, and the next lesson will be a repeat of the previous one.  You will be standing there figuring out note-by-note what is written on the page.  Your listener / teacher will be unimpressed and so should you be.


Level 2: Learning the piece

This is when you have spent some time playing the piece.  The pathways in your brain are getting laid down; the sheet music begins to look like more familiar territory.  You are still sight-reading, which means, if I take the music away from you, you won’t know what phrase comes next; but at least it is beginning to flow.

Key question:  Where is the music?

It still lives on the page.  But it is easier to read now, meaning that the page starts to look more familiar.  If the page is a roadmap for the music, you are still consulting the map but you are getting there faster.

If you stop at this level:

Sadly, this is the level where most students stop.  They even perform the music once it has reached the point where they can follow the roadmap more or less fluidly without too many stop-starts.  But the music is far from being yours yet.

Never stop practising at this level.  Go beyond yourself.  You can do better than this.  It is what distinguishes good students and professionals from those who are not that serious.


Level 3: Playing the piece with spirit.

You know the “roadmap” but are still using it.  You now know what comes next and are observing all the finer markings too – the dynamics (forte, piano, sforzando), the subtle tempo changes etc. You are capturing the feel of the melody and appreciating the contrasts of the counter-melodies and developments.  This is an enjoyable level; while there will still be one or two technical problem spots, overall the piece “runs” well and is fun to play.

Where’s the music?

The music is now in your head.  You are still using the “roadmap” but you are following all of it and giving expression; you know the piece quite well.

If you stop here:

You will be able to perform the piece quite smoothly and bring across a lot of its spirit.  For most amateurs and many students, this level is fair enough and they stop here; but again, I beg you to persevere.  This is not the end!  You still sound like a student.


Level 4:  By Heart

There is a school of thought that says that you don’t know a piece until you know it off by heart.

Yes, I subscribe to that!  As long as the “roadmap” is in front of you, your attention is divided.  When you know your piece off by heart, it is you, your violin and the music.  You are now in a dialogue with your instrument, talking in music.

Where’s the music?

It’s yours!  You own it!  You and your violin are now sharing an amazing time enjoying a piece of music together.  You can do anything with the music now, modulate, change the tone, work on fine detail getting that trill just right, and all that.  The music now lives in your mind and your heart, and in your violin.

If you stop here:

You’ll be fine.  But being asked to perform feels like an intrusion into your private world.  You will play well when you perform, but you will not sound the same as in your practice room, because now suddenly you are self-conscious.

If you are only playing for your own satisfaction, this is where you can park and stay.  But if you are going to perform, it needs one more level.


Level 5:  Sharing

You have acquired a precious piece of music that is like a treasure.  Now you need to make a mind-shift.

You are not playing for yourself and the violin any longer; you’re now giving this precious gift to the people who have come to listen to you.  You and your violin now become a medium to bring this treasure of a piece to your audience.

Where is the music?

It flows as a gift of energy and beauty, not from but through you and your violin, to your listener.  If the listener has a grain of musicality, he will be carried away, enraptured.  You are now fully a musician – you are fulfilling your purpose of bringing the joy of the music to others.

If you stop here:

You’re a professional.  At least, where that particular piece is concerned.


The musician as a messenger

Remember, we play music for different reasons; to heal, to learn, to focus our brains – or to bring joy to the world.

To heal – you are a therapist.

To learn – you are a student.

To focus your brain – you are a dedicated student.

To bring joy to the world – you are a musician.  The musician is a messenger, carrying a charge of pure energy (the music) to others to uplift them.  I don’t like quoting people when I can’t remember the source, but some great musician (could it have been the famous conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler?) said that music is a vision of a better world.

Music is about giving people a break from their lives and their troubles, and leading them away into a fantasy world.  And you, the musician, are the storyteller, the hypnotist who leads them along the road.

The same road that you discovered when you found the roadmap – the sheet music.

All this work, just to teleport people!  😀


7 thoughts on “The 5 Levels of Practising”

  1. Wonderful advice!
    I am trying Massenet’s ‘Meditation’, but I don’t have the music so am playing it by ear. That means I am taking some of your steps in the wrong order. What an incentive, though! I think it is one of the loveliest melodies ever written.
    I have just been teaching J to play the Titanic ‘My Heart will go On’ on the piano with a simple one-note bass, and I want to do it on the violin so that we can have a ‘show’ piece.

    1. Love the Massenet.

      The Titanic theme is very playable on the violin, and it’s a regular tear-jerker at our studio concerts. I’d hoped they wouldn’t do it to me on the last one, where the atmosphere was thick with missing Iain, and the whole thing was nearly another wake… they did play it, of course, because it was so blooming to-the-point… :’-]

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