What really went wrong? Leaning into problem spots

photo of man touching his head

I have a recurring teaching challenge with my saxophone students who are tackling the altissimo register for the first time. They play a passage, and when they get to the altissimo note, if it doesn’t respond perfectly, they immediately stop playing. When I ask why, they look puzzled. “The note didn’t come out.”

“Well, what did come out?” I might ask.

More puzzlement. Sometimes I have to prompt them to play it again, and remind them to play it long enough to really hear it.

“A weird honk,” they might finally conclude. Or “a terrible squeak.”

“That’s a note,” I point out. It might be too low (honk) or too high (squeak). But it has a pitch, right? It isn’t the note we wanted, but it was something. And understanding what something it is helps us know what to try next. If it was a honk, the instrument responded at a too-low partial, and if it was a squeak, it responded at a too-high partial. There’s work to do to fix it, but we’re much farther along than we were the diagnosis was only as specific as “failure.”

This approach is helpful with a variety of woodwind-playing problems. Don’t bail and declare failure at the first appearance of a problem. Try leaning into it. What does the problem really sound like? Can you make the problem happen again, on purpose? If you change something about your approach, does the sound change (even if it just changes to a different problem)? All of this information is potentially useful in finding a reliable, repeatable solution.

Additionally, this approach encourages an attitude of curiosity and exploration, rather than self-judgment. That’s a much more fun and productive way to practice. It lets you finish your practice session eager to try again tomorrow, rather than dreading more failure.

Run toward your problem spots, not away from them, and see what they can teach you.

Practice fewer notes

printed musical note page

I can’t remember where I picked up this tip, but it has been a game-changer in how I practice technically-challenging passages. (If you know a source, please let me know!)

The idea is this: practice only as many notes as you can keep in your head. So, if I’m practicing an unfamiliar passage, and can only memorize the first 3-5 notes at a glance, that’s the size of chunk I should practice.

If the music has an obvious or familiar pattern, such as a common scale or arpeggio, I might be able to memorize more of it at a glance, so I can practice a larger chunk. Or, as I get increasingly familiar with the piece, I might be able to hold more of it in my memory at once, and can graduate to longer passages.

It’s tempting to practice in larger chunks, but start smaller at first to really develop your muscle memory. Gradually build to larger segments as you are able to store them in your short-term memory.

Wind controllers as “practice” woodwinds

Can you use a wind controller, like the Akai EWI, the Yamaha WX, or the Roland Aerophone, as a convenient and/or quiet way to practice a “real” woodwind instrument, like the saxophone or the flute?

No, not really.

You can practice some very limited aspects of woodwind playing. For example, each of those wind controllers has fingering patterns that resemble (but are not identical to) the fingerings of standard woodwinds. If you are in the very early stages of playing a woodwind instrument and still trying to memorize fingerings, I suppose you could use a wind controller to help you with that specific task, to the extent that the fingerings do match.

The Akai instruments have saxophone, flute, and oboe modes, plus the more flexible “EWI” mode that is quite saxophone-like, and even a couple of variations of a valved-brass-inspired mode. The Yamaha WX5 has several saxophone modes and a flute mode. The Roland instruments are set up to map fairly directly to saxophone fingerings, even going so far as to include some of the saxophone’s more problematic features like “palm” keys. However, with that exception, none even have all the keys needed to learn proper saxophone, flute, or oboe technique.

(None of the instruments currently has a clarinet mode, presumably because the real-clarinet phenomenon of overblowing to odd-numbered partials raises some complications for an electronic instrument capable of many octaves of range. And none of the instruments has the physical keys to reasonably approximate bassoon technique.)

Plus, in all cases, including the Rolands, none of them can fully imitate the “feel” of a standard woodwind. Beyond the very basic stage of learning fingering patterns, much of the fingering work that woodwind players practice has to do with nuances of the fingers’ interactions with the keys. Even switching from one flute to a slightly different model of flute can mean having to re-adapt to the keys’ precise locations, spring tensions, etc. Switching between a flute and a wind controller is a much larger leap.

And, of course, no major wind controller currently provides a realistic approach to tone production. None has a reed that functions as such, and none has a flute-like embouchure hole. There are some superficial similarities like breath pressure being mapped to volume, or a bite-able mouthpiece that allows for something like saxophone-style jaw vibrato (or to the ill-advised reed instrument technique of bending pitch with jaw movement).

So, can you practice on it? Not really.

But the good news is that wind controllers (particularly, in my opinion, the Akai EWIs) have lots of potential as instruments in their own right. (If you aren’t familiar, look no farther than Michael Brecker’s playing for an eye-opener.)

Rather than looking at wind controllers as a “practice” instrument or a low-budget stand-in, consider a wind controller to be an additional avenue for expression. Playing it well requires just as much hard work, but also brings worthwhile creative rewards.

Do I have to practice over the summer?

As I send my students off to their summer plans, I know many of them are asking themselves the same question I used to ask: Do I have to practice?

Your teacher might give you a summer assignment. I feel like I really can’t give my students official, enforceable assignments when they aren’t enrolled in my courses. I could possibly guilt them into summer practicing. Or I could threaten them with high fall-semester expectations.

On the other hand, some of my students need full-time summer jobs so they can afford to continue their education in the fall. Some have responsibilities to their families. Some may genuinely need a little downtime for their mental health. (Any mental health concerns should be discussed with a qualified professional.)

So, do you have to practice over the summer? I guess the answer is no for my students, since they won’t get grades, and since I prefer not to teach by guilt or threats. But it probably isn’t the right question. I think the questions to ask are:

What kind of student and musician do I want to be? If you’re planning on a career in music, or otherwise have your sights set on being the best musician you can be, then maybe you already know how you should spend your “vacation.”

What’s possible in my circumstances? You should move toward your goals each day if you can. But if bill-paying or illness or family life or other high-priority obligations get in the way, that’s not a personal failure. It’s life. It’s not a reason to feel guilty or incapable.

Ask yourself what kind of student and musician you want to be, balance that against what your circumstances will permit, and make your best use of your summer months.

Getting the most out of practicing your scales

When you practice scales (or arpeggios or, really, any other technical material) it’s not really about the scales. Nobody wants to buy tickets to hear you play scales.

Scale and technical practice develop the fundamental technique you need for doing more interesting things. You don’t learn multiplication tables or French verb conjugations so you can recite multiplication tables or French verb conjugations. You learn them so you can file your taxes or build a Mars rover, or order pastries or read Proust.

The habits you develop when practicing scales—the building blocks of your technique—will be with you in everything you play. So take them very seriously:

  • Go slowly, and be as precise and controlled as you can. You will work on scales for your whole life as a musician, so there’s no rush to get them up to a certain tempo. Don’t waste time playing them sloppily.
  • Listen deeply to the sound of each note. Scales are a great chance to understand and map the tone, pitch, and response nuances of your instrument. Get in the habit of playing with your most beautiful sound even on technical material.
  • Solidify your best practices. Choose the perfect fingering for each and every note (don’t just fall back on what is already comfortable). Program your fingers to move in the most efficient and precise ways. Stabilize your breath support, voicing, and embouchure.
  • Be expressive. No need to go overboard—just give a subtle crescendo as you ascend and diminuendo as you descend. Add a little vibrato to warm things up. Make it automatic to find and express phrases.

Whatever habits you solidify in your scale practice will be infused into everything else you play. A little carelessness with your multiplication tables or verb conjugations can result in a severe fault with your Mars rover’s circuits or a profound misunderstanding of French literature. Get the little things right.

What if I don’t love to practice?

Musicians are supposed to wake up every day filled with a burning desire to practice for hours, right? If you don’t feel that way, you must not really have what it takes, right? And even if you don’t feel like practicing, you should be able to will yourself to do it anyway, right?

It’s normal and okay not to love practicing, or for your love of practicing to vary. And it’s normal and okay to have less-than-perfect willpower.

Some self-awareness about your practicing (or lack thereof) can help a lot. What keeps you from practicing, or from practicing at your best? Can you embrace it? Incorporate it? Work around it?

Here’s an example: I’ve discovered that my mind wanders a lot while I practice. I might be doing some slow repetition of a tricky passage, but my brain is working on something else. So now I practice with a small notepad nearby. I find that if I can pause practicing for a moment and jot down a few thoughts, it quiets my mind.

At first I resisted this idea, because it seemed like I was planning to multitask and be distracted. But for me, permission to get the idea out of my head and onto paper makes my practicing much more productive overall.

Do you fail to practice, or fail to practice well, because:

  • …you get too bored working on one thing for such a long time? Can you rearrange your practicing so you change tasks every few minutes? Or spread your practicing out throughout the day?
  • …you hate missing out on what your friends are up to, IRL or online? Would it help if you gave yourself permission to spend a few minutes now and then, within established limits, to catch up on what’s happening? Or what if you practiced first thing in the morning, before your social circle gets interesting?
  • …you’re engrossed in an interesting book or show? What if you got to read or watch for ten minutes as soon as you finish your scale routine, or put in a solid half-hour on your étude? Or if you get your practicing done before dinner, you get to binge in the evening, guilt-free?
  • …you get hangry or tired? Could you schedule yourself some breaks to snack or nap or stretch? Or move your practicing to after a meal, instead of just before?

Instead of beating yourself up about motivation or willpower, ask yourself how you can harness your natural inclinations and use them for productive practice.

Time-crunch vs. long-term practicing

My approach to practicing has to adapt to deadlines. Sometimes the deadlines come up fast, and there isn’t time to make everything as perfect as I would like. Other times I have plenty of preparation time and want to make the best use of it.

Suppose the music I’m working on has one or two especially challenging spots, and I know I could put many hours into trying to perfect them. If I get bogged down trying to make those couple of spots perfect on a tight deadline, I might fail to adequately prepare the rest. It’s a better strategy to make sure I’m ready to play 98% of the music at tempo, make a reasonable effort with the remaining 2%, and hope for the best.

But if I have plenty of time to prepare, that approach can backfire. Getting the 2% “good enough” early in the process may mean compromises that I have to undo later. I’ll have a better final result if I’m not in a hurry to bring the tough spots up to standard. Instead, I give them time to settle deeply into muscle memory before pushing the tempo. I practice difficult spots for a few minutes every day, instead of cramming.

Think carefully about your practice approach, and adapt as needed. Good luck!

Playing issues vs. reading issues

Sometimes when I struggle with a musical passage it’s because I can’t quite play it—maybe my fingers or tongue won’t move quite fast enough yet, or there’s a difficult slur or interval leap that I’m still mastering. The solution is methodical practice, which of course takes significant time and effort.

But there’s an additional set of issues that can be solved more efficiently: reading issues. These are caused by a variety of things: unclear printing, bad editing, poor eyesight, or something just not quite clicking in my brain for some reason. On flute I sometimes get a little lost in the ledger lines, and on bassoon my switches between bass and tenor clefs aren’t always as agile as I’d like. Plus I still sometimes stumble over a double-sharp or some other less-familiar symbol.

Reading issues aren’t shortfalls in my ability to physically operate the instrument—they are a disconnect somewhere in my eyes-to-brain-to-execution connection. And they often don’t need hours of drilling to solve.

Keep in mind that reading from your score is 100% optional. Would it solve the problem if you just memorized those few notes? Made some nice clear pencil marks? Rewrote that measure in a clearer way? Scanned the whole thing and reprinted it at a larger size?

Taking reading out of the picture when necessary can save many hours of frustration and tedium. Try it!

Fix fixable problems now

Just about every day I have a student show up for a lesson with an etude or repertoire movement they have been working on for a week or more, and there are little, silly problems that haven’t been fixed:

  • A spot where a fingering choice needs to be made, but hasn’t.
  • A page turn in an awkward spot.
  • An unfamiliar foreign term that hasn’t been looked up.
  • An ambiguous accidental that need to be double-checked against the piano part.

It’s easy for them (or me) to ignore or procrastinate small but easily-fixable issues while busily drilling technical passages. But I know they—and I—are doing our best work when those details don’t slip through the cracks.

It’s not worth it to spend a week practicing something in an incorrect or compromised way because you haven’t gotten around to fixing the fixable problems. Would any of these help you solve those issues more promptly?

  • Print an alternate/trill fingering chart and keep it with your practicing stuff, or bookmark an online one on your phone.
  • Put a few dollars on your copier/printer card/app so you can photocopy a page when needed.
  • Keep a good music dictionary in the pocket of your instrument case.
  • Keep your piano score and solo part together so you can always use them in tandem.

Consider what other easily-fixable problems you haven’t bothered to fix, and ask yourself what you can do to remove friction so they get solved right away next time you practice.

Thinking through scales

My university woodwind students have to pass a scale exam as one of the requirements to progress in their degree program. They have to be able to play major scales and three forms of minor scales, plus arpeggios, through the “full range” of the instrument, from memory.

Many of my students learned their major scales in their school band programs, well enough to have most of them in muscle memory. But some of them are less familiar with the minor scales.

It can be a little overwhelming to keep track of 48 different scales. With plenty of accurate repetitions my students can get to the point of muscle memory for all 48. But in the meantime sometimes they get stuck trying to remember the right notes for the next scale, or get mixed up and play the wrong one.

I find it very helpful to have a mental roadmap for thinking through the next scale, and especially so if I can relate it to something I already have in muscle memory. My map might go something like this, but there are lots of possibilities:

  • C major scale: already in muscle memory, little or no “thinking” needed. As I play, notice the first, third, and fifth scale degrees, so I can use them in the next step.
  • C major arpeggio: first, third, and fifth degrees of the scale I just played.
  • C natural minor scale: since it’s a minor scale, I’m going to lower the third from E to E-flat. And E-flat major is the relative key to C minor, and I have E-flat major in my muscle memory, so I can play that same pattern of notes without too much thought.
  • C harmonic minor scale: now that I’ve got C natural minor under my fingers, I just need to change one note to produce the harmonic minor: B-flat becomes B-natural.
  • C melodic minor, ascending: this one is just like the C major scale I played a minute ago, but lower the E to E-flat.
  • C melodic minor, descending: this one is just like the C natural minor scale (related to E-flat major) that I played a minute ago. Notice the first, third, and fifth scale degrees, so I can use them in the next step.
  • C minor arpeggio: first, third, and fifth degrees of the scale I just played.

Another approach that appeals to some of my students is to think in terms of scale degrees: start with the major scale that’s already in muscle memory, and remember that for, say, harmonic minor, you have to lower the third and the sixth.

Having an organized way of thinking through the scales helps prevent the paralysis and overwhelm of trying to conjure up the whole scale from nothing. When my students take their exam, nobody minds if they take a few moments to think before they start playing, but getting stuck mid-scale would be a problem.

As you get better and faster at thinking through the scales, a good way to push yourself is to use a metronome, and limit yourself to a pre-set amount of time before the next scale starts. Maybe a certain number of beats (or, ultimately, zero beats) before jumping into the next one. If that doesn’t go well in the practice space, you know that particular transition is a problem spot, and can reorganize your efforts accordingly.

Happy practicing!