Practice Starters – Pick a Card!

Products featured here are selected for review by ANDREW EALES

New from Paul Harris and Faber Music, and launched at Music Education Expo in London today, “Practice Starters” is a pack of cards which aims to kick start and refresh your practice sessions.

And as we’ll see, it’s a lot of fun!..

All about practice

How do you practise?
How should we practise?
These are pretty common questions.

Some (including me) will extol the benefits of some gentle stretches and breathing exercises before sitting down to play a few scales and/or technical exercises, perhaps followed by some improvisation, before going on to work on current repertoire, and finishing by playing through a piece that is already at performance level. And there are many variations on this pattern.

But if online responses to my recent article ‘Let’s Talk about our Practice Expectations‘ are anything to go by, many teachers find it frustrating how little practice their students actually do (or at least, in ways that they can assess within the next lesson!).

And most musicians will, in all honesty, have some days where the routine becomes a chore, and when we wish we could think of new ways to mix things up a bit.

Practice Starters…

Enter Paul Harris’s ‘Practice Starters’ from Faber Music:  
it’s, erm… a pack of playing cards!

According to the box, ‘Practice Starters’  is:

“The fun, imaginative way to kick-start music practice sessions and lessons. Simply pull out a card, follow the instructions and start making music!…

• Based on the renowned Simultaneous Learning approach.
• Connects and develops all areas of musical learning.
• Covers scales, aural, theory, listening, performing and much more.
• Suitable for age 7 / established beginners upwards.”

The postman delivered my pack at the exact time one of my adult students appeared for his lesson, clutching an urtext edition of Bach’s Partita No.2 in C minor. Equally intrigued by the Practice Starters cards, we agreed to put them to the test there and then.

My student reached out to select a card…

Turning the card I saw that it goes on to suggest, secondly, playing with 50% expression and then finally with 99% expression before asking,  “what did you do in each performance to achieve this?”  It’s safe to say that these instructions aren’t meant to be taken too literally, but are intended to stimulate the imagination!

What’s in the Box?

Flipping through the pack, there are cards covering Theory, Technique, Sight-Reading, Scales, Rhythm, Posture, Performing, Memory, Listening, Improvising, Character and Aural.

In each category there are four or more cards, and the whole pack can be shuffled and selected from at random, much like any other pack of cards. Indeed, the deck feels like a standard set of playing cards, and they have been produced to the same enduring quality as those generally are.

Here’s a few samples, which give some idea of the scope:

  • Sight-Reading: “Find a piece you’ve never played from a book you used ages ago, and sight-read it”.
  • Theory: “Write out the first few bars of a piece you’re learning on manuscript paper as clearly and accurately as you can. Now play the music from your own manuscript.”
  • Listening: “Listen to two performances of some music by the composer of one of your pieces. How did they compare? Which did you prefer?”
  • Aural: “Play a note LOUDLY. Hear that note ringing in your head for 30 seconds. Sing the same note as softly as you can. Do loud notes have a different quality from soft notes?”
  • Memory: “Create a Simultaneous Learning practice map of your piece without looking at the music”.

Just occasionally one is made more consciously aware of the broader thinking behind Paul’s “simultaneous learning” approach, as in the last of the examples given above. Here is an instruction that will might leave a few users scratching their heads. But Harris’s concept of “Simultaneous Learning” underpins the whole ethos of these cards.

In fact, whether practising privately or in a lesson, one of their biggest strengths is their disarming ability to remind us of the benefits of connected learning, and deliver an expert nudge back towards such if we might have settled for a less holistic, routine approach.

There’s really nothing to not like here. These cards are fun, imaginative, musical, and clearly support effective learning.

And I would say that they have the potential not only to reinvigorate students’ and players’ practice sessions, but are also useful within a lesson context as a way of ensuring entropy doesn’t set in. However holistic I might like to think that my own teaching approach is, it’s a useful check to pick a random card in a lesson and see where it leads!

Many of the publications and resources that arrive at my door are suitable for players at a particular stage in their development, and cater for specific tastes in music, or certain age-groups only.

Paul Harris’s ‘Practice Starters’ really are suitable for everyone.

The Practice Process

Now, while I am here thinking about Paul Harris and Practice with the same brain cell, it’s worth mentioning his outstanding book ‘The Practice Process’, also from Faber Music.


There are of course several excellent books on the subject of instrumental practice, but this one stands out for its practical solutions to many of the problems we all face, whether as students, parents or teachers. And Paul has a brilliant way of making complex ideas simple, and answers obvious.

The book seems to me primarily aimed at instrumental teachers. Chapters cover motivation, goals, content, the role of teachers and parents and yes, the “Simultaneous Learning Practice Map”. The final chapter even asks, “Do teachers need to practice?” Prizes aren’t offered for the correct answer here!

At 72 pages, The Practice Process is not an exhausting read, but it contains far more useful information and advice than we might expect in such a succinct book. I very warmly recommend it!

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.