Book Review: Practiceopedia-The Music Student’s Illustrated Guide to Practicing

Are you familiar with this book?  It was written in 2007 by Philip Johnston, and it’s a valuable resource in my teaching studio.  In fact, I keep it out as the “coffee table book” in my waiting room for students to grab a practice tip of the week to try out.

The author is a music educator who has a broad background which includes being a concert pianist as well as teaching piano, marital arts, and high school English.  I especially welcome the mixture of attentive focus and incremental goals in his practice advice.

The Practiceopedia is set up to be very easy to use and is illustrated in a way that will appeal to all ages.  Quickly skimming will always bring new ideas to the surface, and a favorite aspect of mine is the topic focus guide at the beginning of the book.  “Not wanting to practice” and “Saving time” are just two of the topics that have a multitude of practice suggestions.

My husband and I both have degrees in music and perform professionally.  We have spent many, many hours both practicing and learning how to practice.  Even with all of our experience, we both enjoy reading this book and appreciate the presentation of ideas both new to us and time-tested.  Whether you’re a parent of a student, a musician who is just starting out, or an advanced performer, this book truly has something to offer everyone on their musical journey.



Finding the Beat

The Beat.  If you feel like you have trouble finding the beat, the pulse, the rhythm in music, (these words all refer to the same thing), there’s a high likelihood that you’re not from a family that dances.  There are families where everyone dances… no matter if you’re old or young, talented or not.  When a group like this gathers for an occasion, moving together is a celebration and strengthening of community.  Which is to say, dancing is something that is observed and experimented with and participated in from birth.

Step by Step.  If you weren’t blessed with a situation like this, just realize that all of the people you think of as having natural rhythm have spent many hours practicing, whether they know it or not.  The great thing is that neuroscience research proves that the brain can continue to improve and learn new skills throughout life.  Noticing the rhythm and keeping the beat is a skill, therefore if you put in the effort and time you, (yes, YOU), can also improve.

As with all skills, it’s best to start with the basics.  The first step is being able to keep track of a simple beat.

  1. First you’ll need a metronome (follow this link for more information and resources).
  2. Let’s start with setting up a slow and straightforward beat.  60 beats per minute is nice and familiar… that’s the same as the ticking of a clock.
  3. Tap along with the metronome sound with one finger.
  4. Alternate tapping with one finger from the opposite hand.
  5. When this feels successful, stand and march your feet with the beat, keeping your hands at the top of your legs so you can stay aware of the full movement of your body.
  6. Now move more of your body with the beat.  Play around with letting your body move however it wants to while staying with the pulse of the beat.  Try leading the movement with your elbows, knees, heels, head… just explore!  Let yourself be silly and have fun!
  7. Investigate the options of the metronome.  What does it feel like to go a little faster?  A little slower?  A lot faster/slower?

Practice.  Spend at least a few practice sessions (separated by doing completely unrelated things) with this metronome exploration.  When you feel comfortable with this, turn on the radio.  Generally a pop music station will have songs with simple and straightforward rhythms to tap, march, and move with.  Here are a few straightforward examples from different musical genres:

Where Did It Go? There will surely be times when you lose track of the beat.  That’s fine!  It’s an important skill to be able to realize when you’ve gotten off the beat and then successfully rejoin again.  In fact, if you’re not losing the beat enough to practice this, purposefully distract yourself.  One way is to turn off the music and then turn it back on, challenging yourself with how quickly you can return to the beat.

Adding a Vocal Layer.  A lot of times we’ll want to be able to keep the beat while singing.  Sounds easy enough, but it is actually layering on an additional skill set, so be patient with yourself.  First practice with just speaking something while moving with the metronome.  The ABC’s work well, or recite anything that’s already in your memory.  To try singing a song while keeping track of the beat, go back to something easy and familiar.  In the accompanying video I’ll demonstrate with Happy Birthday.  This song has a bonus challenge with its musical pause toward the end (called a “ritardando”).  This is a perfect place to practice getting back on the beat.

I hope you have fun exploring and practicing this skill of finding and keeping the beat! Remember to have patience with yourself and find the joy in the wonderfully messy process of learning.


A metronome is a tool used to measure time, and is very useful for practicing and learning music or anything, really.  A clock ticks (or beats) every second, so it measures time at 60 beats per minute (BPM).  You can make a metronome go faster by increasing the BPM number, slower by decreasing the number.  A metronome was once a stand-alone device, but today you can easily find a digital version online or in the app store.  You can search online for:  “free online metronome,” or here’s a simple and free one.

There are lots of free and low-cost apps, as well.  The one I use most is called “Tempo” by Frozen Ape.  It’s available for both iOS and Android.  Here’s a link:

But I’m Tone Deaf…

Are you really? It is a possibility, especially if you have brain damage (genetic or otherwise), but more than likely you just have an untrained skill. Just like riding a bike, it’s not something any of us are born doing, but most of us can learn.

The Test. The big clue to test if you really are tone deaf is to find out if you can hear the difference between sounds. Can you tell if one sound is higher than another? Lower than another? The same? Here is an online test you can take for free, but I want to warn you ahead of time that this is set up like a “test.”  If you have test anxiety, your results might not be accurate. You will be given two different sounds and need to pick if they are the same or different. The best way to approach the test is with curiosity. Allow yourself to play around with the sounds as you hear them. Even if you “can’t sing,” find out what happens if you hum along or use your hand to help you approximate the visualization of the highness and lowness of each sound. Give yourself as much time as you need, and play the pitches as many times as you need to feel more comfortable.

Now What?  Once you determine that you aren’t truly tone deaf, the next step is to starting noticing sounds. Sounds are all around us all of the time, but probably very early in life our brain decided it had spent enough time paying careful attention to them and set a sort of auto-pilot program so that we don’t really notice the differences unless they signify an emergency or warning of some sort. If you are wanting to develop your skill as a singer, the first step is to start noticing the sounds around you… which are high, low, the same?

Big Step with Simple Rules.  The next big step to developing your abilities has to do with the Auditory Feedback Loop. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? It is! We need to always keep in mind the power of this idea because the steps are deceivingly simple. Most of the time our brain is quick to dismiss them and we lose the advantage that they offer to get better, fast.

Auditory Feedback Loop

  1. Listen to the sound you want to reproduce.
  2. Imagine yourself making the sound. How will it feel coming out of your mouth? What will you notice?  (This crucial step is often skipped by students- don’t let it be you! By imagining the sound your body can “preset” all of the moving parts in your vocal instrument so that when air moves through your vocal folds everything is where it needs to be.)
  3. Make the sound.
  4. Evaluate— how did your sound compare with the original? Was it high, low, or the same? When you made any adjustments needed were they large or small changes?

At first, you’ll have the best results by giving yourself a lot of time to complete each step. I promise you your brain will fight against this very quickly.  “But this is too easy!”  Beware of this temptation creeping in… it will derail your efforts faster than anything else.  If you want to really hone your skills, record yourself hearing the pitch and then reproducing it. When you listen to or watch the recording you’ll have a more objective perspective of how closely you match the sound with your voice.

If you would love to sing, but have always been told you can’t match pitch, are tone deaf, or just shouldn’t try, this is the best place to start.  I have helped numerous students who come to me saying the very same things and they ALL have improved as singers.  With playfulness and curiosity in your practicing, you can, too!