Make a better marking

pencil lead in shallow poto

In lessons and ensemble rehearsals, I frequently ask students to mark in something they missed—an accidental, a stylistic nuance, a breath.

Sometimes they tell me they already marked it. They assure me they will get it right the next time.

As you might guess, I am less than convinced. The marking didn’t do the trick this time, so why should it work next time? Or next week? Or in the performance, when you’re playing under pressure and with distractions?

If the marking you made didn’t work, do a better one. Can you make it…

  • …more visible? Maybe beefing up that faint little pencil stroke will help. If you’re concerned about marks you might want to undo later, make photocopies and mark those (or go digital).
  • …clearer in meaning? Circling a note you got wrong doesn’t add any information to the page. Instead write in the sharp you missed, or a reminder of what key you’re in, or even the note name if that helps. You can use symbols if you will be 100% clear on what they mean (even under pressure), but don’t be afraid to use words.
  • …earlier? If you keep forgetting to do the crescendo in measure 32, consider putting a reminder in bar 28 that it’s coming up. That gives you an extra moment to process it mentally and be prepared before the crucial moment arrives.

Every marking should make your playing better. If it doesn’t, change it!

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 … Read more

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 … Read more

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 … Read more

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 … Read more

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 … Read more

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 … Read more

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 … Read more

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 … Read more

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 … Read more