Building A Routine: Picking Tempos and Reps

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This post is part 2 in our “Building A Routine” series. If you haven’t read part 1, I would recommend doing so before continuing on with this one (click here for part 1). The concepts presented in this post will be building off of what we learned in that one.

After you’ve chosen appropriate exercises to help you move toward your own goals, the next step will be to assign proper tempos and repetitions. The combinations of these two variables can be virtually endless, so for the sake of simplicity, I’m just going to explain the basics.


Choosing a proper starting tempo is paramount. Too often, musicians begin practicing material at a tempo that is too fast for excellence, guaranteeing they will ingrain frustration along with their poor playing habits. In the beginning of our learning process, it’s not productive to waste time “seeing what happens” by jumping straight into performance tempo.

Here’s an example I use often when describing the importance of choosing a correct tempo to begin your learning: Let’s say you are someone like me, who enjoys going to the gym and working out. One of your favorite exercises to perform is the squat. You currently can successfully complete a 1 rep max of 225 pounds, and your goal is to eventually progress to 315 pounds. No person in their right mind would say to themselves, “Although I can only squat 225 pounds, I’m going to begin squatting 315 pounds because my goal is 315 pounds. Eventually I’ll be able to do it if I keep trying”.

Let’s break down all the reasons this is a bad idea while sticking with the fitness analogy.

1) The most glaring reason you do NOT want to do this is the high risk of injury. Your muscles, joints, tendons, and ligaments have not adapted to support that kind of weight. As a result, the risk of form breaking down and something going wrong is very high when working outside of your ability level.

2) Even if you didn’t get injured, the amount of repetitions that would be performed with bad form means that if you somehow did progress to lifting 315 pounds, you wouldn’t have built up any reliable muscle memory to have repeatable success.

3) There is no guarantee you’re even using the right muscles to complete the lift. This brings into question the subject of the first article in this series: Why do we choose an exercise? To say we can do it, or to train for improvement?

Bringing things back to building our practice routines, the same rules apply. If you’re reaching outside of your ability level, MANY mistakes will happen and injuries might even occur. Not only will you learn your mistakes, but an injury will require time off and will set your progress back considerably. If you are able to eventually learn the material only practicing at performance tempo, there is little chance of having confidence in your ability to consistently repeat your success. And finally, there’s little to no evidence that you have actually improved as a player. You may be able to play the music you practiced, but more than likely you won’t be able to carry the skills to other repertoire.

How To Choose

The easiest way to choose a correct starting tempo is to pick one that is easy for you. Too often, the bar for observing progression is riding the line of what you can play. I would suggest altering that to riding the line of what you can play perfectly. In order to build proper habits of consistency into our playing, we have to choose a tempo that allows us to be consistent on a regular basis.

Your starting tempo may feel too easy. That’s ok. This tempo is only where we start; we’re thinking long term. What you can do today should matter much less to you than what you can do one year from now. So ask yourself, what kind of player do you want to be one year from now? What would that player be capable of doing? Am I capable of playing that way right now if I simply adjust my tempos to a more appropriate difficulty?

Less Repetitions, Better Performance

It is my belief that the average musician plays significantly more repetitions than needed for their musical progression. The reason for this is simple: many musicians overlook the value of quality playing on rep number one. They know they will get as many chances as they need to improve something, and they’ll spend as much time as it takes to get there. As long as they eventually get it, they feel progress has been made.

Unfortunately, that strategy is of little use to us in performance. When the lights go down, we only get one shot. If you are practicing in a way that gives you endless chances to succeed, you will be woefully underprepared to succeed on your first try. We must turn to the way we structure and organize our practice to give us a method that more closely resembles the demands that are placed upon us as performing musicians.

How To Choose Reps

To summarize this section neatly, we need to lower the quantity of our repetitions, and increase the quality of our repetitions. Nothing else will have more of an impact towards successful performance than practicing under the same kind of pressure. A very famous quote that (I believe) is attributed to Bud Herseth is: “Always perform, never practice”. One could endlessly speculate over the meaning of such a simple phrase, so it is impossible to know exactly what he meant. However, I interpret the quote to mean the mindset needed for successful performance must be reinforced every time we pick up our instruments.

Imagine you were given one shot for everything you practiced. One time through your lyrical etudes or only one chance to nail your articulation exercises. How would that change the way you approached your session? For me, it has dramatically improved the amount of focus I have while playing. This mindset has forced me to be more mentally committed to what I’m doing, and my results have been amazing.

I’m not suggesting that you give yourself only one repetition for everything you do. Although it would be a fun experiment to try, it’s certainly not practical for improvement. The challenge for each of us then is this: how many do I NEED to improve? How do I get the more out of less repetitions?

Finding The Sweet Spot

I know you are wondering, “How many repetitions (above one) do I need?”

In my own practice, the answer is usually 3. Before I play anything, I ask myself, “What is the goal of this exercise? WHY did I choose to play it?” This brings your goals to the forefront of your mind. Once I know what I am trying to accomplish, I’ll play (and possibly record) my first repetition. After that, I’ll ask, “What went well? What do I want to do better? What will I focus on improving in my next repetition?”. The answers to those questions need to be specific. Instead of “Blow more air to support the sound”, it will be “Blow through the 16th notes in measure 3 to set up the wide leap at the beginning of measure 4”.

After I make a plan, I do my second repetition, repeat the same line of questioning, and then play my third rep. Then I’m done. Seriously. If there is still room for improvement, I make a note of it, and move on. While there is no hard and fast rule on the maximum amount of repetitions, generally speaking I wouldn’t go above five. If you are unable to get one quality repetition to build upon within five total, an adjustment in tempo may be necessary.

Progress Takes Time

A common story I’ve heard, and one I’ve definitely experienced, is that a player gets too involved with improving one particular exercise. This causes them to spend more time than they wanted, forcing them to neglect other areas of growth that are important.

Deep learning will not happen in a day. Let me say that again, with feeling: Deep learning will not happen in a day. The kind of retention I am interested in takes quality repetitions over a period of days or weeks (possibly months). I stop after 3 repetitions so I can pick up where I left off. I don’t experience burn out. There’s no frustration from feeling like I progressed a great deal in a practice session, only for it all to disappear the next day. There is only slow and steady progression. The goal is to be a little bit better than yesterday, and not as good as tomorrow.

Know Your Limits

You have to be real with yourself. You cannot move from level 4 to level 5 if you are still on level 3. Sometimes backing up to level 2 to make sure you master it can help with moving past level 3. Forcing your progression because you aren’t patient will never end the way you want it to.

There is good news though: we’re in this for life. We don’t have to figure it out today. Learn to love the process, and you will be far less likely to be frustrated by a lack of result. Rather than trying to live in the future by playing things you can’t do now, try finding what you CAN do today and see where that might take you.

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