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.
“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.
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.
For musicians on an academic schedule, summers are often wide open. This can be a great opportunity to get ahead, or a bottomless pit of procrastination and idleness. Here are some ideas for staying motivated to get some summer practicing done.
Lately I’ve been on a diet that has a weekly “cheat” day. Six days out of the week, my meals are Spartan, but on cheat day I get to eat whatever I want.
My guess is that isn’t the ideal way to manage my waistline. I would be better off eating more regimented meals every day. But I would burn out and quit. The cheat day is a compromise. It cedes a little ground to my sweet tooth, but keeps me going back to lentils and broccoli for another six days.
Every so often I decide to revamp my practice routine. It’s always ambitious. I plan hours of long tones, a battery of scales and exercises and etudes, piles of classical repertoire, and new jazz tunes. I see myself drilling every aspect of my playing for hours and hours every day.
It usually goes well for a few days, and then fizzles out. I tell myself that I’m not getting my routine done because of a deadline. Or a conflict. Or because I just needed to sleep in a little that day. But the truth is that I’m burned out—I’ve given myself a practice routine that I can’t or won’t sustain.
It’s often said that the best diet is the one you stick to. I think that’s good advice for practicing, too. It would be great to do a super-intense practice routine every day. But if a little lower intensity is what prevents burnout, then so be it.
If you are finding your latest practice routine to be hard to keep up, ask yourself what you can do to make it a better experience. What will bring you back again the next day? Shorter sessions? More frequent breaks? Fewer things to practice? A greater variety of things to practice? More structure? Less structure? A weekly “cheat day” when you get to skip scales and play whatever you want?
A practice routine, like a diet plan, should be good for you and should help you reach your goals, but it should also be something you can sustain and even enjoy.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
David Allen’s well-known book Getting Things Done is always within arm’s reach at my desk. I find its concepts and techniques valuable for managing my time and productivity.
I don’t consciously use a lot of “GTD” ideas in my practicing, since practicing seems to me like a thing that is never “done.” (If any of you are applying GTD concepts to practicing, I’m interested in hearing about it.) But there’s one part of the GTD system that I do think of often when practicing or working with students: the “two-minute” rule.
The idea is this: when organizing your tasks, if something comes up that will take less than two minutes to complete, it’s better to go ahead and do it rather than taking the time to process it into your to-do list and revisit it again later.
I try especially to impress this on students who are stuck in “stage one” practicing, running long passages or entire pieces without stopping to isolate and fix problem spots. If you are practicing, here are some examples of things to spend two minutes or less solving now, rather than adding them to a do-later list:
Every week I hear students play badly, then tell me, “but I can do it in the practice room…”
Here are some reasons things might go more poorly in a lesson than in a practice session, and some strategies for dealing with those problems.
It’s possible that you’re not really playing any differently. Things seem worse because having someone else listen heightens your sense of what you really sound like. Try recording yourself while practicing, then listening back. It can be a painful revelation, but it can bring problems to your attention and improve your ability to really hear yourself as you play.
It’s possible that your mastery of the music is really only borderline, and the normal stress of having an audience is enough to cause trouble. This is what I call “sight-reading mode.” It’s not that you are necessarily playing the music for the first time, but you are still at the point of having to mentally process each note as it goes by. For more stress-proof performance, put in more slow, accurate repetitions when practicing to build your muscle “memory” and aural memory.
It’s possible that your mastery of the music is good, but your stress is above normal. In this case the problem isn’t your practicing per se. Improve your ability to play in front of others with techniques for managing performance anxiety. These might include healthy lifestyle habits (sleep, nutrition, and exercise) or mental exercises (like visualization, affirmations, or mindfulness practice).
Some of the questions I am asked most frequently about woodwind doubling are about how I practice. Specifically, how often do I get to each instrument, and how do I divide up my time?
The truth is that there isn’t an ideal solution, and maybe not even a good one. There are only so many hours in the day. The best, say, clarinet players are spending a good number of those practicing the clarinet. If I practice the same number of hours, but I’m dividing that time among multiple instruments, then I’m likely to feel a bit behind. This is the big obstacle to fine woodwind doubling: practice hours are hopelessly divided.
Sure, there are ways of improving your practicing efficiency, but the best single-instrumentalists are using those same approaches. And any cross-training effect is minimal at best for players who are beyond the beginner level. If you want to sound like a serious player on your secondary instruments, you have to put in the hours on those instruments.
Realistically, an embarrassing amount of my practicing is triage: which instrument needs to sound passable to get through the next performance? But when I have the luxury, I like to organize a little better.
For me it generally isn’t useful to squeeze too many instruments into one day, since the time allotted to each instrument gets too short to be productive. So, if I am trying to practice five instruments about equally and can find about three hours per day to practice, I might decide to practice three instruments per day, for an hour each. But if I rotate through the instruments too fast, different ones each day, I’m not able to reinforce my improvements enough to make them permanent. So I usually settle into something like this:
In that example, I practice each instrument three days in a row, then neglect it for two. That balance, for me, seems to be a reasonable compromise. If I want to rotate but I feel like a certain instrument needs extra attention, I might assign it two blocks of time on the days it appears in the rotation, and adjust the other instruments around it.
When organizing your own practice time, you should be asking yourself some questions about your own priorities: How many instruments are you practicing? Are you trying to bring them to a uniform level of proficiency, or do you have primary and secondary instruments? Do have instruments that are “behind” and need extra time for catching up? Does it make sense for you to devote separate blocks of time to (for example) flute and piccolo, or will you fit them within a single block?
I think many aspiring musicians pass through a phase in their development where they have “learned” fingerings, music reading skills, and other fundamentals at a basic degree of mastery, and turn their attention to developing sufficiently fluent technique (mostly finger technique) to tackle the instrument’s standard literature. Once they acquire that fluency and tackle that repertoire, they will begin to deal with the nuances of interpretation.
Whether this is the best way to do things is a subject for another post (or book), but the reality is that a lot of advancing music students, including many of my university students, are at a point where they are very focused on playing notes in time in tempo, and when they achieve that level with an étude or repertoire piece, sometimes they don’t have a clear idea of what else needs to be done to bring the assignment to a performance level.
If you or your students find yourself in that holding pattern, here are just a few ideas of what to “add” to your technical preparation:
Are you following all the composer’s marked articulations? dynamics? tempo changes?
In the places between the dynamic markings, are you giving the phrases appropriate shaping?
Is each note in tune? Does each note have a characteristic, pleasing, and consistent tone? Does each note respond precisely when and how you intend it to?
Have you familiarized yourself with all of the composer’s textual indications, and translated them if necessary? Are you making them audible?
Are you using vibrato (if applicable) in a purposeful and expressive way?
Are you taking a purposeful approach to performance practice? For example, are you using historically-informed approaches to ornamentation, dynamics, tempo, articulation, etc.? Or, alternatively, have you made a conscious and well-informed decision to break from these?
Have you studied live performances and recordings of this work by the finest musicians, compared their interpretations, and made careful choices about which ideas to incorporate or adapt into your own performance?
Have you thoroughly studied the full score, and do you understand how your part fits into the whole?
Do you have opinions about the formal structure, and are you using those to shape your overall interpretation?
Those are just a few, but probably enough to keep most of us busy for a lifetime of study. Feel free to add some more in the comments.