It seems like there’s very little I do these days without a computer. Here are some ways I have used a laptop to boost my practice sessions.
With hard drives large and cheap, there’s no reason not to have your music collection with you anywhere you can take your instrument and your laptop. Absorb the music of your old or new favorite artists, borrow or steal their best ideas, and find inspiration for your own creations. With iTunes (free), you can even use the Store feature to search for short previews of music you don’t own, and buy it inexpensively for instant gratification. Check out YouTube, too, for lots of free music (and then support the artists by buying a nice legal copy of the stuff you like).
A built-in microphone or an under-$10 add-on is enough to reveal perhaps more than you want to know about what you really sound like. To really get every painful detail, pay a little more for a quality mic. I have one of these, which works well for me because it’s a standalone recording device and can also be used as a computer microphone. Free (or bundled) software like Garage Band or Audacity gives you a quick and easy way to hear yourself, plus tons more features for power users.
Also, try using a webcam and bundled software to get a look at things like your posture, technique, and facial expressions while playing.
After you’ve listened to yourself recorded in digital clarity, you may have a few ideas of what needs improving. Fire up your word processor of choice, and make a list of what needs fixing and what you can do about it. Goals that don’t get documented don’t get done: “if you think it, ink it” (or, even better, type it). Make specific, measurable goals, and refer back to your list often.
Track your progress
Spreadsheets like Excel are perfect for keeping track of measurable goals. Use them to keep track of your speed at something, or how many measures or lines or pieces you have learned, or which days you practiced a certain skill. If you want to get really fancy, make a chart to show your rate of progress, or to reveal when you’ve hit a plateau and need to rethink your practice strategy.
Play along with favorite recordings to try out performance tempi, get a feel for accompaniment parts, and do an overall reality check. Or try various kinds of playalong software, like Band-in-a-Box or SmartMusic. Or, just have your favorite playalong products like Aebersold recordings or the Tuning CD right at your fingertips.
Use notation or sequencing software
Used in combination with a MIDI keyboard, notation software can be a quick and convenient way to transpose or arrange parts, or even to check out what complicated rhythms sound like. (With most software, you can do it without a MIDI keyboard, too, but it’s more work.)
Or try creating your own playalong recordings. These can be as complicated as complete orchestral accompaniments in your favorite key and tempo, or as simple as long tones that you can play along with in unison to check your intonation. Or how about a custom click track with your preferred tempo changes?
Use analysis tools
Try the freeware Spectrogram for visualization of your sound. Only your ears can tell you if it sounds right, but a look at a spectrogram may tell you something interesting about the harmonic content or amplitude of one note compared to another. The simpler amplitude visualization provided by software like Audacity can also help you recognize when, for example, there are unwanted bumps in your phrases.
Use online texts
There’s a wealth of valuable information online on how to improve your playing. One of the best examples of this is the online archives of the Double Reed, the International Double Reed Society’s journal—decades’ worth of solid gold articles by the world’s best oboists and bassoonists. There’s sheet music to be found, too—see my recent post about the IMSLP.
There are lots of excellent message boards and discussion forums devoted to playing musical instruments. The Clarinet Bulletin Board is an example of a discussion board that is well-established, frequented by genuine experts, and generally polite. One of the benefits/dangers of these fora is that anyone can contribute, so you’ll have to use your best judgment to sort the good ideas from the bad.
Or, if you’re feeling bold, look up the website of one of your favorite players, and send him or her a polite email expressing your admiration and asking for a suggestion on something you’ve been trying to improve in your playing. They are busy people, so be patient and understanding if they don’t respond right away, or even if your email seems to have slipped through the cracks permanently.
Use your computer to enhance your practicing, but when games or favorite websites become a temptation, turn it off! If your willpower needs a boost, try the LeechBlock Firefox extension or the Mac program Self Control.