Practice slump checklist

February 5, 2016

Sometimes my students complain that they have had bad practicing days or weeks. Not that I have ever had this problem (ahem), but here are a few ideas for breaking out of a practicing slump.

photo, Katy Wrathall
photo, Katy Wrathall
  1. Check equipment. Slightly-malfunctioning gear can make you feel like a bad player. Be sure to eliminate this possibility.
    • Are your reeds functioning well? Prioritize response-balanced-with-stability over more subjective and malleable things like tone. Many reed players use unnecessarily stiff reeds; consider trying something a little softer if you haven’t lately.
    • Is your instrument functioning well? If you know how, check the most important adjustment screws (oboe: left hand stack, left G-sharp key, F resonance; saxophone: bis, G-sharp, right hand stack). Re-check basics like alignment of bridge keys. And, of course, make sure your instrument gets regular (at least annual) maintenance checkups. Professional instruments should probably get full mechanical overhauls every 5-10 years.
    • Are you using the best equipment for you? Don’t let new purchases be your go-to solution for every problem, but in some cases replacing an instrument or accessory can remove a roadblock to progress. (Do a reality-check with your teacher to make sure you aren’t just throwing away money chasing a quick fix.)
  2. Check technique. It might be you after all.
    • Have you warmed up thoroughly and correctly today? It’s best to do this at the beginning of your practice session, but there’s no rule that says you can’t warm up some more mid-session to double-check your tone production and reset your mental focus.
    • Have you reviewed all your fundamentals? Take a closer look at your posture, hand position, breath support, embouchure, voicing, finger movement, etc. Have you slipped back into a bad habit? Are you suffering the effects of a technique deficiency you know you should fix but haven’t gotten around to yet? If you don’t know how to fix it, check in with your teacher.
    • Can you release some tension? Frustration often goes hand-in-hand with tense muscles. Consider doing a little deep breathing, stretching, mindfulness practice, yoga, Alexander Technique, or whatever else puts your body back in balance.
    • Have you laid sufficient technical groundwork? If you are working on something especially difficult, is there something else you could practice as an intermediate step? Études, technical exercises, or other preparatory material can help bridge the gap between your current ability level and the ability level you need.
  3. Check your health. If your body isn’t responding well, your practice sessions will be difficult and unpleasant.
    • Have you been getting enough quality sleep? Implementing good sleep habits is a major upgrade to the function of your mind and body.
    • Are you eating balanced meals? Are you eating enough? Are you eating too much? Is your diet too low on good stuff and/or too high in bad stuff?
    • Are you getting outside for at least a few minutes of sunshine and “fresh” air? Sunshine is important to your body’s vitamin D level.
    • Are you stressed, or otherwise not at your best mentally? In some cases, professional counseling and/or treatment may be needed. If you are a college student, there is a good chance there are free, discreet counseling services available on your campus. In other cases, taking a break, getting a little exercise, talking something out with a friend or loved one, or just getting a change of scenery might be enough.
  4. Check your mindset.
    • Are you practicing mindlessly or without direction? Try making a short list of goals you would like to accomplish during this practice session. If you’re not sure where to start, make a quick recording (perhaps with the voice memo app on your smartphone) and listen to it to get some ideas about what needs improvement. If you don’t meet all your goals, you can tackle them again tomorrow or re-prioritize.
  5. Check your environment.
    • At what time of day are your practice sessions the most productive and pleasant? Do you practice best in the morning before your body is tired and your brain is full? Or do you get a second wind after the sun goes down?
    • What locations are most conducive to good practice sessions? Sometimes just changing the scenery can revitalize your focus and productivity. Practicing in places with different acoustical qualities can make you hear yourself in new ways and get your creative juices flowing.
    • What distractions are getting in your way? Can you reduce or remove them?
  6. Check your ego. Practicing should challenge you, but not overwhelm you.
    • Are you working on music that is inappropriately difficult for your current abilities? If you have some freedom to choose what you practice, consider working on something else for now and tackling this project later. If you are committed to a performance of something very difficult and have to make it work, be sure to include other things in your practice session that you can be successful at, to keep your motivation primed.

Don’t let poor practice sessions bring you down—use them to refine your habits and make the next session your best yet.

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