I used to be very anti-tech in the practice room. No phones, no apps, no nothing — just pencil, paper, metronome, and tuner. Even as technologies evolved and better practice apps were developed, I still resisted. I thought it was too much of a distraction. And it totally can be — but that’s what airplane mode is for. Today, I use technology in the practice room every day — in ways you’re probably already using, like tuner and metronome apps, and in some other ways you maybe haven’t yet considered. In this post, I’m going to walk you through a few of my favorite apps that I use daily to plan my practice and practice my plan.
iOS and Android
Let’s start with an app you’re probably already using — Tonal Energy. If you’re not, download it now! This is hands down the best tuner/metronome app available and only costs a few bucks. As a metronome alone, this app is exceptional, allowing for preset programming in ways most metronome apps have not yet developed. The tuner and drone functions are similarly wonderful, allowing you to toggle between “equal” and “just” temperament and adjust the sensitivity of the tuner, among many other things. On top of all of the basic tools, a unique element of Tonal Energy is the analysis function, which allows you to record a piece and play it back at a much slower speed — you can literally hear and see intonation discrepancies in slow motion. Seriously, the best on the market.
iOS and Android
Seconds Pro is an interval timer app designed originally for circuit training, introduced to me by Andrew Bain. This app is fantastic. If you’re struggling to keep your practice sessions efficient and on track, this is especially for you! Using this app, you can program exactly what you want to practice, the duration of each session, the duration of each excerpt or exercise, and how much rest between each piece… just “set it and forget it!” Click start, let it run, and the timer will tell you when to move onto the next excerpt. This is fantastic for those of us who plan to practice things for x-amount of time, but often go over (or under)! The latest version of the app even lets you specify beats per minute for each set. In other words, you can use the app as a built in metronome as well, if you choose.
iOS and desktop only
Hours is a new discovery for me and has become a big part of my day-to-day life. I am a big fan of personal analytics — no surprise of someone who wrote a book on planning and assessing. With Hours, I basically track how much time I spend completing tasks in certain areas of my life throughout the day. You can organize it however you wish and track any element you can think of — you can even track tasks within tasks (like how much work you’re doing on excerpts versus fundamentals). While I use this for multiple areas of my life, you might choose to only track your practice — logging exactly how much time you are spending on each piece. At the end of each week, I can get a sense of where most of my time and energy is going and where I should make changes the following week. I find that when I see small numbers for an activity I thought I was doing a lot of — ahem, mental practice — I am much more likely to make a change the following day or week. And, let’s just say, it’s enlightening to see how much you really practice. The app is totally free, but the Pro upgrade unlocks additional features for the most nerdy among us.
iOS only; mp3s available for purchase online as well
This one is a little hard to explain but an invaluable tool to have to strengthen your mental game and reduce stress at the same time. You might have heard clips of these recordings before there was an app, but they have since been expanded. The app lets you custom build your own hypnosis sessions, focusing on any number of topics, such as auditions, creativity, confidence, sight reading, stage fright, visualization, and more. (And please don’t be scared off by the word “hypnosis” — this isn’t some cartoon madman waving a pendulum to make you dance — think of it more like a deeply restful and intentioned relaxation). Many musicians I know listen to their custom sessions at night, before bed, getting their mind in the right place for the next day and helping them fall into a deep, restful sleep — which many of us struggle with especially as auditions approach! While the benefits of this app are plenty, if all you get out of it is better sleep… well, I think that alone is worth its weight in gold!
iOS and Android
Another tool more for your mind than your intonation, buddhify is a guided meditation and mindfulness app designed for the busy, everyday person. A fantastic way to center yourself before you walk into the practice room everyday. Whether you’ve never meditated a day in your life or are a seasoned Zen master, you can find something very rewarding in this app. With a beautiful, simple interface, you can choose from all sorts of guided meditations for many different situations — simple, everyday situations like taking the bus or walking through the city, or dealing with difficult emotions like sadness and anger, or struggling to fall asleep, or just trying to “be here now.” The durations range from 3 or 4 minutes to upwards of 10 or 15. Really, this app is for anyone. Meditation is a great way to stay grounded, centered, and balanced, whether you’re preparing for an audition or not! This app has brought a lot of focus and clarity to many people’s lives and practicing — mine included!
iOS and Android
Rain Rain is a rain sounds app. You’re probably thinking… how on earth do you use this in the practice room? Well… I don’t. However, I do use this app at auditions. Ever take an audition where you’ve had to wait around in a group warm-up room? Or, ever take an audition where the individual warm-up rooms had paper-thin walls and you had to wait there for what seemed like hours while the guy next door played every excerpt on the list and, for some reason, every excerpt not on the list? I don’t want to hear any of that. But usually I don’t want to listen to music either — it’s too much stimulation, too much sound, and too much to focus on. Instead, I put on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones and play rain sounds. It’s both soothing and functional, drowning out external and internal noise and distraction. I can mentally rehearse the round ahead and even buzz or play a few notes to stay warm, without hearing a single Beethoven-7-up-an-octave from the next room over. You can mix a bunch of different rain sounds — city rain, forest rain, tent rain, etc. — or listen to different types of white noise altogether.
iOS only, but many similar available on Android
This one I use all the time… in the mental practice room. This is a simple free app that shows an octave and a half of an animated piano and, of course, plays whichever pitches you click on. I do not have perfect pitch, so I use this when mentally practicing a piece to keep checking that I am hearing things correctly in my head and not gravitating away from the key — without ever having to touch the horn. After all, if your mental picture is fuzzy, your picture on the instrument will be too. For a while, I used the drone wheel of the Tonal Energy app for this, but as you move around the wheel, the octaves adjust. This is a much simpler, much more efficient app for mental practice.
(this specific app is only available via iOS, but there are countless piano apps on both platforms — just find one you like!)
Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall
iOS and Android; web and tv streaming
Aside from the obvious — listening to great performances by an amazing orchestra — I use the Digital Concert Hall app to play alongside recordings. Through decent speakers or a smart tv, I find this to be the easiest way to play with a recording. Why do this? Well, there are many reasons — maybe to be expounded upon in a future post — from getting a [very rough] sense of what playing a piece in the orchestra is like to getting a sense of how to pace your endurance within a piece. I prefer doing this with a video performance of high quality like DCH over one that is just audio, as you do get some sense of the visual aspects of playing in an orchestra as well. After all, playing in an orchestra is not just an auditory skill. I read once an interview with Phil Myers, former principal horn of the New York Philharmonic, who said he prepared like this for years before winning his job in New York, playing alongside recordings of the orchestra. He mentioned that when he finally started the job, it didn’t seem nearly as daunting, as he had been “playing those pieces with the New York Philharmonic for years!”
If you don’t have a DCH membership, I highly recommend subscribing or asking your school for a subscription. There are so many great recordings by so many wonderful composers — and the collection grows by the week. Plus, it’s the Berlin Philharmonic. They’re pretty good.
And last but not least…
Voice Memos and Clock/Timer
built-in apps on your phone!
Sometimes the simplest tools are the best tools. I use the voice memos app to record my practicing every day. You don’t need expensive studio equipment to record your practicing. You’ll hear all those tempo and intonation discrepancies on your phone — I promise. Similarly, if you’re not using Seconds Pro to time your practice, be sure to use your phone’s timer. The most efficiently planned and executed practice is done with very clearly set time parameters. Check back soon for a post on this!
Lastly, be sure to check out the Resources section of the website for more suggestions. There are apps, articles, books, podcasts and more. If you’d like to recommend a resource, please feel free to click the link there to do so or leave a comment below! If you have a great practice app to recommend, let me know below!