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How to Practice with a Drone - Practice like a pro

Updated: Sep 17, 2023

Mountain beyond a lake
Becoming a better musician is like climbing a mountain

Everyone knows that in order to improve at our instruments (or anything, really!) we have to spend time practicing, but what does that mean? When I was in college I would sit in the practice room for hours with my instrument, but if I knew then what I know now I think those hours would have felt very different and they may have had very different results. Don’t get me wrong, I have had the great fortune of being able to play the viola for a living, but I have continued to learn and grow as a musician so that now my practice technique is far more optimized than it ever was. Now I have the great privilege of being able to share these practice techniques so that you can benefit from more efficient and optimal practice sessions!

If you have never used a drone or a metronome in your practice before, fear not! It is really quite simple to sprinkle some of these techniques into your own daily practice. I have owned the same Korg drone/metronome since I was a junior in undergrad, but believe me when I say I neglected the poor guy until I was even beyond my Master’s and I turned out alright. What is important is how you work on growing your practice technique now so that you can optimize your practice sessions moving forward, and that is what we will be covering today. Be sure to follow along with the video too!

1. The Right Equipment – The first step in this whole process is to make sure you have the right equipment. As I’ve already mentioned I’ve had the same Korg drone since undergrad, meaning it has survived for over ten years now! Have I dropped it? Yes-many times. Have I dropped it bad enough that the batteries have gone everywhere and the buttons fallen off? Yes, but you just put them back together and it’s as good as new. This drone is a tank, so if you are as clumsy as I am I can assure it will survive even the worst treatment! This one is a metronome and a drone together, which is convenient for just throwing onto the stand and leaving it there for the whole practice session. The doctor beats have also been very popular, I believe they are more expensive, but they are also tanks and they do have more features. The most important features for me are the basic subdivisions, and the ability to change the drone note and pitch frequency so you can choose whether you are tuning to A=440, or some other preferred frequency.

If you need a drone, check out the links below (affiliate links)

These are both great reliable, long lasting options, but they are quite expensive. If you are on a budget but you still want a portable option, there is a smaller version of the Dr. Beat which is also in that link, or you can opt for the smaller Korg CA-2, and complement it with the Korg MA-2 metronome. These smaller devices will fit in most cases and they pack a powerful punch for being such small boxes!

With technology now you can use apps on your phone to get the job done, but make sure you are using a speaker of some sort so that you can hear the metronome/drone while you are playing. My husband has a whole Bluetooth speaker setup in the practice room so that he can hear it in surround sound, but I am old school with my old friend, the Korg drone. Speaking of taking it to the next level-you can even use a program like Musescore or Finale to write out the harmonies you are practicing with. This way if you want to practice multiple measures at a time and change the harmonies, you can play it back and play along. Writing out the music like this takes a lot of work up front, but it is fantastic for short excerpts you’ll play time and time again, or something you know you will be working on for a while.

Whatever system you choose to use, if you are practicing at a school or somewhere other than at home, make sure the system is either highly portable or it stays at the place you’ll be practicing the most. If you use practice rooms at a school make sure that you bring your speaker or store it in your locker so that you always have it at the ready.

2. Always hear the drone – The drone is great because it gives us a pitch to blend with. One of the most common mistakes I see people make is that they will put the drone on, but they continue practicing in tempo and it is apparent that they aren’t really listening to the drone. It’s the same problem people in young orchestras have with tuning, we need to learn how to listen first, then imagine what the pitch will sound like, and then blend the pitches with the drone pitch. It’s a three step process: Listen, imagine, and blend. When you put the drone on, first make sure it is loud enough that you will actually be able to hear it. Play a few notes on your instrument to test it out-can you still hear it? There are a couple of different options that can help with this. Option 1 is to play softly enough that you can hear the drone. Option 2 is to find another speaker that is louder. Option 3 is to practice with a practice mute during this session. Option 4 is to practice with a headphone-cautiously (we’ll get into this). And option 5 is to wear an earplug in your left ear. My favorite option for this type of practice is to use the practice mute.

When the practice mute is on the instrument makes a lot less extra noise, so it is easier to focus solely on the blend of the pitches. I also like that you can play more fully, so you don’t have to get into a habit of playing softly all the time which leads to a lot of people having a “practice room sound”. One of the drawbacks to the practice mute is that you don’t hear the satisfying resonance of the instrument, and I personally feel like it closes the sound if you use it too much and don’t let the instrument ring naturally often enough.

Using headphones while practicing could be very dangerous because if you are playing along with something but you can’t hear yourself, you are missing out on valuable information and you could be building bad habits. While you are in the practice room, make sure you can always hear yourself so that you have a full picture of your intonation and sound quality. Hearing yourself is as important as hearing the drone, even if it is fun to throw on headphones and pretend we are playing in our favorite group!

Use headphones carefully as you practice

3. Which notes do I set the drone to? – Knowing which note to set the drone to is make it or break it kind of information. We basically use context clues. Knowing your keys will help a great deal with this, so if you are new to music theory or have a hard time remembering keys, check out to build those skills. Click here for a key signature cheat sheet to get you started. The best place to start is going to be the root of the chords you are tuning. If you are tuning a passage that is in C major you will start by putting the drone on C. Once the drone is on, take a moment to listen to the drone and imagine what that note will sound like on your instrument. Try singing the passage before you even pick your instrument up. The most important thing is to take the time to absorb the sound so you can build up an expectation of what should come out of the instrument. The first notes you should blend will be those root notes-in this example the C’s. The perfect intervals are going to be the next notes you tackle. In C major that means that we will be tuning the perfect 4th’s and 5ths, which is F and G. A good exercise is to play through the passage extremely slowly and pause on the perfect intervals-the root note, the 4ths, and the 5ths. Listen to how these notes blend with the drone. The beauty of the perfect intervals is that there is only one right answer where the blend is nice. If you are a half of a cent off, there will not be a blend and you will have to adjust that note. Remember how you adjusted each note and when you try to blend the passage again aim for precision. The 3rds and 6ths will also have a blend point, so you can add those in once the perfect intervals are good. You may hear some sympathetic pitches humming in the background-that is normal, and it is an indicator that you are going in the right direction.

If you are tuning a complex passage that doesn’t follow a major or minor harmony, you can be more creative with how you set the drone. I usually choose the most common notes in the pattern and set the drone based on that. There may sometimes be a clash of pitches instead of a blend, and that is OK, sometimes the clash gives us just as much information as the blend does. For example, if you play a minor second or major seventh at the same time, the pitches will create a really fast rhythm in your ear. It’s weird, but it works-try it out!

4. Go slow – My personal favorite type of practice-slow practice! If you can’t hear the blend of each and every single note, that means you are taking it too fast for the drone. The first time you are practicing a passage aim to go through it note by note, and when I say note by note, I mean extremely slowly. There is no tempo and time stands still. What helps with this is to choose a short passage-try going one measure at a time and give yourself an entire five minutes to practice this one measure. Set an alarm on your phone to help you keep track of that time and remember-for this exercise you are only practicing that one measure. If you don’t have the patience or focus to practice this way at first, that is perfectly OK. Patience and focus are skills that we can practice, and this is a version of practicing those skills. Try this exercise every day and I bet that by the end of the week you will be able to do it. I know some of you are already really great at this type of highly focused practice, so if five minutes is easy set the timer to 20 to really push it. Regardless of what level you’ve achieved at music or at focus, always work towards pushing yourself to that next level of improvement, I promise it will pay off!

5. Aim for precision on every single note – This one goes without saying, but we all need to hear it anyways. If every note wasn’t important, the composer wouldn’t have written them. Since the composer took the time to write out every single one of the notes we see on the page, we owe it to them to try our best to make sure every single note sounds like it is important. It is so easy to rush through everything and then to give our favorite most climactic moments all of our attention, but there wouldn’t be great moments without everything that led up to them. Use the drone to tune every single note in those wild runs we have to play. All of the little in-between notes in the middle of a great melody. All of these notes are important, so let’s make sure they have all been treated as if they are important. When you have the drone on and you are going through passages, take a minute to check every single note to make sure it blends nicely with the drone. Sing through every note in the run you are practicing. It circles back to the listen, imagine, and blend idea. If every single note blends nicely with the drone, chances are that your instrument will have so much more ring and resonance in the sound. Every note that doesn’t add to that resonance takes away from the overall resonance, so take the time to make sure every single note is contributing as much as every other.


If this is the first time you have practiced using a drone, welcome to the club! If you have been using it sparingly (the way I did as a student), I hope this gives you some insight on how much the drone can add to your practice. For my own practice sessions, I use the drone or metronome about 75% of the time. I always have it set on the root whatever scales I am practicing (Click here to read my Top 5 ways to practice scales), and I follow the guidelines laid out in step 3 when I am practicing music in general. It is the absolute best way to help improve intonation IF you are really listening, imagining, and blending as you practice along with it. I hope that the drone helps you in your practice as much as it does mine. Thank you for reading! 🎶🎵🎶🎻



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