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.

Staying motivated for summer practicing

photo, Craig ONeal
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.

Continue reading “Staying motivated for summer practicing”

The best practice routine

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.

photo, Dave Crosby
photo, Dave Crosby

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.

Practice slump checklist

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.

photo, Katy Wrathall
photo, Katy Wrathall
  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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?
  6. 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.

Practicing and the two-minute rule

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.

photo, Matthew
photo, Matthew

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:

  • Look up an unfamiliar foreign term
  • Mark in a missed key-signature note or ensemble cue
  • Practice an awkward three- or four-note passage (How many times can you practice it in two minutes? One or two hundred times?)
  • Check and adjust the tuning of a problem note
  • Revisit a favorite tone exercise to improve the sound of a certain note or passage
  • Figure out and mark in a trill fingering
  • Make and notate an interpretive decision (You can always change your mind later. For now, pick a plan and try it out rather than leaving it up in the air.)
  • Choose and mark a good place to breathe
  • Settle a question or conflict by consulting the full score or accompaniment part
  • Make a quick recording (your smartphone probably has a voice-recording app) and identify some areas to focus on (and possibly solve in two minutes)

This approach does sometimes mean breaking stride on larger practice-time projects, but in general I find the two-minute fixes to be worthwhile.

But I can do it in the practice room

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.

photo, Derek Bruff
photo, Derek Bruff
  • 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).

Don’t make excuses, look for solutions!

FAQ: Practicing schedule

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.

photo, Jon Delorey
photo, Jon Delorey

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:

Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5 Day 6
start again…

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?

Practice smart, and keep at it.

“Next” steps in preparing repertoire

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.

Photo, S. Parker
Photo, S. Parker

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.

Three stages of practicing

My practicing has evolved quite a bit since my beginner days. In those earliest days as a middle-school band student, my idea of “practicing” amounted to playing the scale/piece/etc. through from beginning to end, generally with a number of mistakes, and then (optionally…) doing it again. I did manage to make some progress, but the results were far from ideal: few problem spots ever really got fixed.

As my musical standards, maturity, and commitment to practice time improved, it became clear that beginning-to-end practicing was not the best use of my time. As I started taking private lessons during high school, and transitioned into university music studies, I began spending more of my practice time focusing on the problem spots. With some work, at least some of those spots got solved, and my rate of progress ramped up noticeably.

At that point, I found myself in the same situation that my own university students now sometimes complain of: they successfully improve the problem spots, but, frustratingly, the “easy” parts fall apart under pressure (in a lesson, a performance, etc.).

photo, Wolfgang Lonien
photo, Wolfgang Lonien

For me, the third stage of my practicing development began when I realized the obvious: every part of what I am practicing needs concentrated, methodical practice. If the “easy” parts are falling apart, it’s because I have essentially been sight-reading them in the practice room, and under pressure my sight-reading ability suffers a bit. Instead I need to know every note, rest, and expressive marking intimately. Problem-spot practicing gets me up close and personal with the “hard” parts, but neglects the rest.

So now I practice, and encourage my students to practice, phrase by phrase, measure by measure, even beat by beat, through every bit of the music, regardless of difficulty. Some parts might require more work, but every part needs work.

When I explain this to students, I sometimes see in their faces the same hesitation that I initially had: this is going to take forever! It does require serious commitment, but isn’t it worth it to play the lesson or performance with confidence and control? Besides, it might not take as long as you think. Sometimes I walk through the math with a student to show them that it’s actually pretty doable. For example, suppose the student’s assignment includes a 50-measure etude. If the student spends two focused minutes on each and every measure, that only adds up to a bit more than an hour and a half of practicing, but begins an intimate acquaintance with the entire etude. That’s less than one day’s worth of practicing for most college-level music students, leaving quite a few additional hours in the week to shore up the hard parts plus practice other assigned materials.

I think that, at least for me, this progression through three different stages was necessary; in other words, I don’t think it’s necessarily wise or feasible to push all beginners straight into something as intensive and committed as third-stage practicing. Your results may vary.

Practicing, boredom, and guilt

In my first semester as an undergraduate music major, I struggled with practicing. I felt guilty about not putting in as many hours as I knew I should, but more than that I felt guilty about the reason: I was bored and frustrated in the practice room. I loved playing music, but going into the practice rooms felt like serving time: counting down the minutes until my hours were done, or sneaking out early with a pang of shame, while my playing more or less failed to improve. I didn’t talk to my teacher or my classmates about it because I thought my lack of enthusiasm for practicing was a sign of some kind of personal weakness.

But things got better. I gradually developed better ideas how to practice, and started to see results from it. My progress motivated me to get back into the practice rooms even more, and over the next few years practicing became my favorite part of the day.

photo, mandykoh
photo, mandykoh

As a teacher, I have tried to be sensitive to this problem. I find that my students who struggle with practicing are sometimes afraid to talk to me about it, and want to brush aside talk of their declining practice hours with thin excuses about having a “busy week.” But if we can address the problem honestly and openly, I can offer some suggestions to help them enjoy their practice time more and get more out of it.

I don’t think that there is a one-size-fits-all solution for practice room boredom, but in general I think these are some good starting points:

  • Put practicing on your daily schedule, and stick to the plan. It’s tough to scrape up enough enthusiasm for practicing when it’s the thing you have been putting off all day, and now it’s the only thing standing between you and some much-needed sleep.
  • Be goal-oriented in your practicing. Make a list of things that need improvement about your playing, and tackle a few things during each practice session. If you’re not sure what needs improvement, be sure to take good notes in your next lesson—as a teacher, I consider it my primary responsibility to help students hear what they really sound like, and what they could sound like. Or, don’t wait: make a recording of yourself (a smartphone makes this super easy), listen back, and jot down a few things that need work.
  • Don’t just try to improve your playing, work on improving your practicing, too. It’s an art form of its own. Soak up new practice ideas from your teacher, your classmates, and anywhere else you can find them. (Here are some of mine.) And, of course, invent your own.
  • Know your limits. Personally, I find that I can give about ten minutes of good, focused attention to a practice task before my productivity starts to decline, so I switch tasks at least that often. If I haven’t perfected something within ten minutes (and usually I haven’t), I’ll come back to it later with fresh energy. Figure out your own attention span and work with it, rather than against it.
  • Be honest with yourself and with your teacher about how your practicing is going. I guarantee your teacher can relate. She or he will probably have some great new ideas you can try, but might not know yet that you are in need of them.
  • Ride out the tough patches. Even once I started to get better at practicing, there still were (and still are) days when I just don’t feel like it. But there are lots of things in my life that need to be done that I don’t always feel like doing, and I still seem to manage. Sometimes the hardest, most tedious practicing seems to happen right before a breakthrough.
  • Start. I asked one of my students once what he found to be the hardest thing about practicing. He looked me in the eye and said, “Getting it out of the case.” Once he had his instrument assembled, he explained, it wasn’t so hard to just start practicing. (Cartoonist Scott Adams takes a kind of similar approach to going to the gym.)

You know practicing is important, and you love to make music. If your practicing is making you miserable, don’t give up on it! Make it fun and productive.