Reader email: maintaining doubles

Photo, nigel_appleton

I love getting good questions by email:

I have a question about maintenance on your doubles. Once you feel like you have a good foundation and can play them at a high level, how do you maintain that in your practice routine?

There’s no great answer to your question. Playing one instrument “at a high level” takes lots of time and commitment, and playing several just multiplies the requirement.

I don’t know if I really play any of my instruments at a high level, but here are a few things that seem to help me:
  • Spend some time living in the world of each instrument. Read books and journals, buy and listen to recordings, attend concerts, masterclasses, and conferences. When I start to feel like I’m really getting a handle on an instrument, it’s time to go immerse myself in it and realize what is really possible. Last month I went to the John Mack Oboe Camp, and was blown away by the great playing I heard there. It made me really aware of some things that needed improvement in my own playing. I got to participate in some masterclasses and got some great suggestions.
  • Keep yourself challenged. I do a faculty recital each year for my college teaching job, and I try to crank things up by a small notch each year in terms of difficulty. Not because difficult music is necessarily better, but because I need to push myself. Find something you can’t quite do—a repertoire piece, a fundamental technique issue, an advanced or extended technique—and work on it until you can do it.
  • Focus on fundamentals. There just isn’t time in the day to give each instrument the 3-4 hours of practice they need. What time I do have, I try to really pack with long tones, scales, and other really fundamental stuff, and make everything as perfect, polished, and controlled as possible.
  • As a practical matter, I find that I need an hour or more with an instrument to make any progress when I’m practicing, and I need to practice it a few days in a row to get some momentum going. So if I’ve only got a couple of hours, it’s usually not useful to cram in half a dozen instruments. I try to rotate them in such a way that each instrument gets practiced for a few days in a row, then gets a few days off. Something like:
    • Monday: flute, oboe, clarinet
    • Tues: oboe, clarinet, bassoon
    • Wed: clarinet, bassoon, saxophone
    • Thurs: bassoon, saxophone, flute
    • Fri: saxophone, flute, oboe
I hope that helps. Good luck!

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