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Practice music like an Olympic athlete

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Whatever your musical style or genre, establishing an effective, consistent practice routine will set you up for musical success. Here are some tips to get you started.

The Olympics give viewers a great opportunity to marvel at athletic excellence. Even if you’ve never pole-vaulted in your life it can be inspiring to watch the world’s top athletes do what they do best.

For serious musicians, there’s a great deal to learn from Olympic athletes when it comes to structuring the most effective practice sessions possible. After all, just like sprinting, gymnastics, and Judo, making music is a physical act that relies heavily on skill, strength, timing, and dexterity. Many similar principles apply.

Read on for some ideas, inspired by the world of athletics, that can help you get the most out of your own practice sessions.

Keep your practice space ready

Dirty, cluttered, disorganized gyms can interfere with effective training — and the same applies to your music training. Make sure your practice space is clean, organized, well-maintained, and is in a location where you’re comfortable and free of distractions.

Also, remove as many physical barriers as you can between you and your studio, instrument, or microphone. The less stuff you need to move to begin practicing, the easier it will be to get started and the more likely you’ll adhere to a consistent practice regimen.

Keep a mirror (or audio/video recorder) handy

Many top athletes look at their form in a mirror as they train — or record and analyze their competitions after the fact. The same idea can benefit musicians as well.

Work with a coach

It’s uncommon to find an Olympic-level athlete who doesn’t receive help and guidance from a qualified coach. Getting regular input from someone experienced in your discipline can help you identify your weak points. It can also leverage your strengths and keep you on a positive training path while avoiding injury and burnout.

Regardless of whether you’re working with a teacher for your performance or technique, it never hurts to partner with someone more musically experienced than you to periodically check in and help structure a practice plan that will get you where you want to be.

Plan your practice

Top athletes begin training sessions with a game plan. The more you can structure your musical practice sessions with similar foresight and discipline, the more effective they can be.

Vinyl Guide bannerThe exact structure of your practice sessions matters less than having a solid roadmap going in — and planning your practice sessions doesn’t mean you need to be rigid. If you’re not feeling a certain practice routine one day or you find yourself hitting a wall of physical or mental resistance, pivot to something else. Just be mindful of your choices and your reasons for them. Don’t shy away from practicing something hard just because it feels intimidating or because you’re afraid you might not be good at it.

As you plan, remember to switch things up day to day. Top athletes generally don’t hammer the same muscles, technique, or routine every single training session, as that’s a good way to burn out both the body and mind. Rather, they plan ahead and vary their training regimens with long-term growth and success as a goal. Follow the same example in your music practice and see how it feels to plan different skills, songs, or techniques for different days. You may be surprised at how quickly you find all areas of your musicality expand in tandem as your cross-training continues.

Ease into it

When top sprinters enter a training session, they don’t go straight from relaxed walking into top-speed sprints — and world-class gymnasts don’t dive into multiple body-twisting flips immediately upon entering the gym.

When you start your practice sessions, don’t jump into your most physically challenging or mentally rigorous work. Warm yourself up with something that your body already feels comfortable doing.

Effective warmups could include playing through low- or medium-intensity songs that don’t push your chops too far or simple exercises that help you get into the groove. Whatever you choose, make sure it puts you in a good mental and physical place before moving on to more intense work.

Challenge yourself

Athletes and musicians alike can benefit from pushing boundaries. Is today the day you feel up to jamming along with that complex prog-rock song that constantly shifts between 7/8 and 5/4? Ready to reproduce your favorite rapper’s rapid-fire flow and timing, hit for hit and breath for breath? Growth is one of the things that makes both music and athletics so rewarding — challenge yourself, stretch your abilities, and find places to grow as a musician.

Take a break

Even the greatest athletes have off days, and the same is true of musicians. Don’t expect to perform optimally every time you start a practice session and don’t punish yourself if you can’t nail today what you could easily knock out yesterday. Regardless of daily anomalies, consistent and thoughtful practice is key to long-term musical growth. Relax, keep at it, and see what fresh wonders you can perform the next day, week, or month.

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Has practicing music with an athletic point of view helped you in your career? Tell us in the comments below.

rock rewindMichael Gallant is a musician, writer, and entrepreneur living in New York City. His debut album for the Steinway & Sons label, Rock Rewind, features solo piano reinventions of Pearl Jam, U2, Halestorm, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, and more. Read his recent article for the National Endowment for the Arts and follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant and

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About Michael Gallant

3 thoughts on “Practice music like an Olympic athlete

  1. Of course, you go through a warm-up then; “Practice the most difficult things you can think of, until they become easy. The easy stuff you’ve already mastered will easily follow.”

  2. Great article. I always tell my students that being a musician who plays at a high level of technical excellence is the same as being an Olympic athlete. For 40 years I did 2 hours each morning just on technique, and of course 4 to 6 hours after that.

    I always keep a recorder running, not only that, but one that can play at back at half speed. When you are practicing fast scales you need to hear where some notes may not be quite in the right place, especially on guitar!

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