Playing issues vs. reading issues

"[233] If you could see it through my eyes." by Linh H. Nguyen is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

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

"There's always something" by Reva G is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

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

"#Oboe" by Paper of Light is licensed under CC BY-ND

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!

Planning breaths

When learning a new étude or repertoire piece, it’s common to practice at first with focus on the notes, often playing them at a slow tempo and/or divided into chunks. This is a good approach for mastering the needed finger technique, but it may neglect one of the crucial parts of a performance: breathing.

In some music, it’s obvious where to breathe. But in a page of nonstop sixteenth notes, it’s harder to find the right places, and to execute them gracefully. Adding to the problem, I find that when I am nervous or playing under pressure, my breathing is one of the first things that falls apart: I start breathing in unaccustomed places, or skipping breaths that I know I really need.

I recommend establishing a breathing plan early in the process of learning new music. That way you can practice the breaths just like you practice the notes—they become a part of your muscle memory, and will happen automatically even under pressure.

The first step for a wind player should be to mark in the musical breaths, the ones that demarcate phrases. These are breaths that you will take (or possibly fake) regardless of your need for oxygen, because they serve the music. How exactly to do that is beyond the scope of this post, but here are a few quick tips:

  • Beware breathing at bar lines. They look like nice stopping points, but often don’t make musical sense. (They are there only for your convenience in counting.)
  • Background in music theory helps a lot, but you can also use your ears to help you figure out intuitively where a phrase comes to rest, or steal ideas from a good recording.
  • To go deeper, consider studying phrasing, perhaps from a book like David McGill’s. (Put that one on your wish list if you haven’t read it already!)

Once the breaths required by the music are in place, you may decide you need more, perhaps because you haven’t worked the piece up to its full tempo yet (or because the piece isn’t written with sensitivity to your desire to survive). Mark in-between “survival” breaths as needed, perhaps in parentheses so you remember which ones they are. Put them in the best places you can find, and execute them as musically as you can, but as your tempo increases you may be able to skip them. If so, be sure to erase them so your marked-in plan stays up to date.

Choosing places for survival breaths is a trial-and-error process. Mark some in and give them a try, then adjust as needed. If you feel uncomfortable while playing, this can lead to panicked decisions on stage, so choose breaths for your comfort.

Particularly for the oboe, you may find you need some “breaths” where you can actually exhale stale air. Mark these clearly, too.

Always update your pencil marks if you decide to change the plan at all, so that your plan is 100% clear and you can practice it in a consistent way. You can change your mind later, as long as you change your marks.

To summarize:

  • Start early in the process of learning a new piece.
  • Mark in musical breaths, which you will observe even if you’re capable of playing longer without stopping.
  • Mark in survival breaths, if necessary. Use trial and error to get them right.
  • Practice the breaths just as diligently as you practice the notes.
  • As you get closer to the performance, you might alter the breathing plan as your interpretation evolves, or as you no longer need some of the survival breaths.
  • Be strict about keeping the markings current, and about playing just what is marked.

Well-planned, thoroughly-practiced breaths contribute to a relaxed, musical performance.

Music practice and technical debt

photo, nigel_appleton

In software development there’s a concept referred to as “technical debt.” The debt is created when software code is written in a less-than-optimal way. The computer program works, but has some bugs or inefficiencies that will need to be fixed or improved later. Like other kinds of debt, it can be a useful way to get something done now, but will cost more (time, effort, dollars) in the long run.

The metaphor works well for practicing music, too. Suppose I am working on a passage where a certain alternate fingering would be the most efficient choice. But I don’t use that fingering very often and I’m not completely comfortable with it, so I fall back on a more familiar solution. That gets me playing the passage now with some degree of success, but it also solidifies my attachment to the familiar fingering. Or perhaps my articulation is a little too heavy and thumpy, and I cover that up by adding some slurs in crucial places. That makes the passage work, but means that if I ever want to play it right I’ll have to improve my tongue movement and unlearn the slurs.

In a perfect world I would always tackle the issue head-on: invest whatever is necessary to habituate the alternate fingering or clean up my articulation technique. In reality sometimes a looming performance means plastering over the problem and promising myself I’ll fix it later, at a greater price.

I have found it useful to keep a running list of things I want to improve in my playing, including technical debts that need to be paid off. Incorporating relevant exercises, a few at a time, into my warmups helps me make small daily payments, so that hopefully the next time I need those techniques I own them free and clear.

Grading student practicing

Each week I have my university woodwind students submit a report on the number of hours they have practiced, and I award them points based on that number. (They are additionally graded on how well their lesson goes.)

I don’t think points-for-practicing is an ideal situation, and perhaps not necessary at some more competitive, more performance-oriented schools. The students at my small, regional university have a range of backgrounds and ability levels, but certainly for some the idea of an intensive practicing routine is new and challenging. This approach helps keep them incentivized (bribed? threatened?) to practice several hours per day, until hopefully it becomes a self-motivating habit. Or, in some cases, it helps them realize that their commitment level isn’t compatible with the degree program.

I use a simple formula for grading practice hours. Each student has a weekly practice hours target, which varies depending on the degree program (or, more precisely, the number of credit hours of lessons: more for performance majors, fewer for music education majors, etc.). If they put in that exact number of hours, they get 100% of the points. If they put in half the hours they get 50% the points, if they put in one and a half times the target they get 150% of the points, and so forth.

(hours practiced)/(required practice hours) × (possible points) = (grade as a percentage)

That gives them essentially unlimited extra credit if they want to go above and beyond, or lets them practice a little extra during slower weeks so they can free up some time for weeks that are busier with midterms or band trips.

Practice reports are due every single Monday of the semester, even holidays. This works better than having them report hours between lessons, since sometimes things get moved around in my schedule and it ends up being more or fewer than seven days between lessons. I have streamlined the reporting process quite a bit by using the university’s LMS to automatically administer a weekly “quiz,” which looks like this:

For Thanksgiving break in November and spring break in March (each a full week with no classes) I have been collecting practice reports, and treating them as pure extra credit. That way I’m not punishing students who spend those vacation days with family or who need a break from the instrument. But the students who are serious about playing usually put in a pretty solid effort during those weeks and earn a nice grade bonus for it.

When I explain this system to other educators I often get asked about honesty. I haven’t found it to be a major issue. That might be partly because of my students’ background and upbringing (it’s the Bible Belt), and maybe partly because lying turns out to be pretty unsustainable: if their reported practice hours don’t seem to match their level of achievement, I start asking tough questions.

When I was a first-year undergraduate music major and not yet fully convinced of the importance of practicing several hours per day, a nudge/threat from the music department scared me into changing my ways. But the sudden “motivation” to apply myself a little better soon started paying off. As I had more and more success I felt more and more inclined to practice because I got more and more out of it. Ultimately, I learned to enjoy and even crave the hours in the practice rooms. It’s exciting to see my students making that same transition.

Prepping the dumb guy

photo, Corrie

In the practice room, I’m smart, organized, and focused. I’d like to say that this always leads to performances that are relaxed, poised, and confident. But sometimes the smart guy from the practice room fails to show up, and instead a much dumber version of me ends up on the stage: nervous, distracted, and scatterbrained.

It’s my job (the smart guy) to make sure the dumb guy is prepped and ready to go. He’s not much good at thinking on his feet or making good musical decisions, but he’s trainable. So here’s the preparation regimen:

  • Practice in a thorough, methodical way. Not just the hard parts—the easy parts, too, which the dumb guy thinks he can handle but will be prone to boneheaded mistakes.
  • If recordings of the repertoire are available, listen to them over and over. Sometimes when the dumb guy’s reading or memory fail him, his ear can help him through.
  • Include a clear breathing plan in the practice routine. Mark the breaths in, early in the process, and practice them like they are notes. My particular dumb guy tends to breathe in weird places when he gets nervous, so I have to make sure good breaths are part of his muscle memory. (If you have a dumb guy/girl, they might have their own personal quirks that need a safety net.)
  • Make extensive markings. Anything that the dumb guy might forget gets penciled in, in clear and unambiguous terms (no just circling things—the dumb guy can’t always remember in the heat of the moment what the circles mean). If necessary, I even leave him a little reminder a few bars in advance (“big breath coming up,” “keep fingers relaxed,” etc.).
  • Make foolproof arrangements for page turns. Sometimes that means things like making a couple of copies of a page, with some bars completely blacked out so the dumb guy can’t accidentally play past the page turn, or fail to find his place after turning. Sometimes I even leave some instructions in the margin about how to do the page turn successfully.
  • After the recital or concert, I review the dumb guy’s performance to figure out what other holes he managed to fall into, and strategize about how to plug those holes for next time.

If you’re like me, and your IQ sometimes drops a few points under the hot stage lights, make sure you’ve done your advance work so the dumb guy can’t cause too much havoc.

Preventing accidents with pencil marks

photo, S. Parker

After some recent windy weather I saw someone in my neighborhood cutting up some fallen tree branches with a chainsaw. He wore jeans and sneakers and handled the saw with something less than familiarity.

Later, I saw a professional tree removal crew working at a similar task. They operated their chainsaws expertly and with confidence, and wore helmets, eye and ear protection, and heavy protective clothing.

I thought the amateur might really be the one in need of safety gear. But the professionals showed up equipped to do the job right, do it promptly, and do it without mishaps. Continue reading “Preventing accidents with pencil marks”

Recording your practicing

photo, James Cridland

“Record yourself when you practice” is common advice, and good advice. I frequently recommend it to my students, but few of them do it. I think it can seem overwhelming. Recording seems like a big production: getting the material to performance level, using complicated and expensive equipment, playing beginning to end, doing cruelly thorough analysis followed by self-flagellation and sadness.

Here’s a simple, effective, low-stress approach that I use: Continue reading “Recording your practicing”

How are you going to improve this?

I’ve blogged previously about getting my students to give more than pat answers about how they think their playing sounds:

It’s an ongoing battle to get my students to listen more deeply than that. Was the articulation “not good” because it started with air noise instead of tone? Because it was accompanied by an unwanted percussive sound? Was the articulation technique perfect but you failed to follow the composer’s markings? Or was it something else?

The next step is getting students to make a clear, actionable plan to improve. That conversation often goes like this:

Me: Okay, what are you going to do to improve that aspect of your—

Student [rolling eyes]: Practice.

Me: Well, obviously. But how are you going to prac—

Student [sighing]: Keep practicing until I get it right.

Me: No, I mean what specific practice tech—

Student [through clenched teeth]: Use a metronome.

In other words, the “plan” is usually to suffer for a few hours in the practice room, and maybe, against all odds, emerge with the problem magically fixed.

But practicing without a plan rarely produces the desired results. I’m much more optimistic about the student’s success if they can tell me something like: “Well, I need to slow this way down, slow enough that I can get it exactly right, and use the metronome to make sure I’m not rushing. When I can play this passage with the correct articulations 10 times in a row without mistakes, then I’ll inch the metronome up by a couple of clicks and try again.” That’s a clear commitment to a tried-and-true method. It will probably be a much more productive and satisfying practice session, which means the student is more likely to put in some more good hours the next day.

Less-experienced students might have a smaller repertoire of practice techniques, and I consider it a lesson-time priority to teach them more of those techniques. Trial and error in the practice room will help them refine these techniques, and determine which ones are most effective for them.

Productive practicing requires identifying an area to improve, selecting a technique (or series of techniques) to apply to it, evaluating progress, adjusting the practice technique as needed, and noting what does and doesn’t work for future practice sessions.