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.

Isolating problem spots

Earlier this month I posted about a fundamental practicing concept that sometimes escapes my less-experienced students. Here is another:

Me: Play your D melodic minor scale.

Student: [Begins D minor scale, plays a wrong note in the second octave.]

Me: Whoops, remember to play B-natural.

Student: Okay. [Starts over, makes same mistake.]

Me: Please start at the second-octave A, and play just from there to—

Student: [Starts from second-octave A, makes the same mistake, proceeds to finish the scale.]

Me: No, I want you to start at the A, play just to the B-natural, and stop.

Student: [Plays.]

Me: Okay, that’s correct. Now—

Student: [Starts over, makes same mistake.]

Practicing in overly large segments is an issue for less-experienced students for at least three reasons. The first is that is it makes it difficult to notice exactly where the problem is happening. Students may tend to “power through” a section and evaluate it as a whole (“That wasn’t very good”), then simply start over again and hope for the best. Sometimes my younger students are surprised when I point out that they are actually making the same mistake over and over. In their minds, it’s a roll of the dice every time, hoping that everything turns out right, and if it doesn’t, then start again and hope for better luck this time. Practicing in smaller segments makes it much easier to identify and isolate problems.

photo, Basheer Tome
photo, Basheer Tome

The second issue is that even if the precise problem is known, practicing it within too large a segment increases the cognitive load—it’s hard to devote enough attention to the actual problem when there are so many other notes to think about. Plus, practicing too long of a segment raises the stakes in a way that often doesn’t work well for inexperienced practicers: by the time you actually arrive at the problem spot, the pressure is really on to get it right, since you’ve already invested a lot in this run-through. If you isolate the problem to a much smaller segment, it’s not such a big deal if you have to start again.

The third issue is efficiency. If your goal is to correct one wrong note, which lasts less than a second, and you play 30 seconds’ worth of music leading up to it and another 30 seconds’ worth after it, then you can only get about one repetition done per minute. Even if you get it right, it will take you hours to really solidify that passage. But if you can narrow the problem down to two seconds’ worth of music, you can do many repetitions per minute.

In most cases, the problem that needs fixing has to do with getting from one note to another successfully. It may be that the second note isn’t the right one, or that it doesn’t respond right, or that the articulation isn’t correct, or a variety of other things, but the crucial concept is that there is a pair of notes, and the first note is right, and the second one isn’t.

Step one is to practice just those two notes, not just once through, but many times. If this is only accomplished with difficulty, it may be due to the second note having a less-familiar fingering, or perhaps some kind of particular response difficulty. Practice those two notes—and only those two notes—over and over until they improve. If they don’t, consult a teacher who can help to you diagnose and improve your technique.

If playing the two notes is trivially easy, then the problem is something about the context in which they appear. Add one more note before the first one, and repeat it several times. If it’s still easy, add one more. Continue until the problem returns, and practice that sequence of notes slowly and carefully until it feels natural and solid. If it becomes clear that adding more notes before the problem isn’t what’s triggering it, then start again from the two notes and gradually add notes after them. Sometimes anticipating what follows can cause something to go wrong.

Don’t be overly anxious to put the (former) problem spot back into the “context” of a whole scale or etude or movement. Make most of your practicing small-segment work, and very gradually reassemble the small segments into slightly larger ones. Repeat the slightly larger ones many times, then combine them again into still larger ones.

Take the time to break your practicing down into smaller chunks, isolate the problem spots, and work them methodically and repetitively.

Slowing down

I can’t tell you how often I have had this happen in lessons, especially with my younger students:

Me: Play your E-flat major scale.

Student: [Begins scale at breakneck speed, plays 3-4 notes, makes a mistake, stops. Begins again at the same speed, makes a different mistake, stops.]

Me: Wait—

Student: [Begins again at breakneck speed, makes a different mistake, stops.]

Me: Wait. Please slow down and play accurately.

Student: [Begins again at same speed as before, makes a different mistake, stops.]

Me: Okay, let me show you what I mean. [Demonstrates.]

Student: [Rolls eyes. Plays the scale slowly, with much-improved accuracy.]

Me: Good. See what I—

Student: [Plays at breakneck speed. Makes a mistake.]

Younger or less-experienced students in particular seem to get fixated on a perceived need to play everything as fast as possible, and often seem to prefer fast-with-mistakes over slower and more accurate. But as more experienced practice-ers know, time spent practicing this way is virtually 100% wasted.

Mastery of a technical sequence, such as playing a scale or musical passage, requires repetition. If my scale turns out differently every time because I’m playing too fast and sacrificing consistency, then I really haven’t done any repetitions. Or if I’m making the same mistake repeatedly because I’m not giving myself time to think while I play, then I’m doing repetitions of something that I didn’t want to master: an incorrect version of the passage. I spent many of my younger years throwing away practice time doing each of those things.

It’s also a mistake to move on too quickly from playing slowly. Sometimes I will see a student make several hasty, sloppy attempts at a passage, then relent and play it slowly, and then, having “succeeded,” immediately return to playing too fast. Once isn’t nearly enough. It may take several, or dozens, or hundreds, or more accurate, controlled repetitions before it’s possible to play the passage at the desired speed. But if I have laid this foundation well, I find that speed is the least of my worries—I have all the speed I need, and with solid accuracy.

And the speeding-up part of the process often takes place very late in my preparations. I think sometimes my students expect their speed to increase like this:

speed-straightBut I get much better results if I allow this to happen:


I spend more and more of my time polishing every detail of a passage at a slow tempo, and let the speeding up happen later and later. When I do this, I learn technical sequences much more thoroughly and much more efficiently (in other words, the “Time spent practicing” for a particular passage gets shorter and produces better results).

Don’t waste time and effort practicing mistakes. Be patient, slow down, play it with accuracy and control.

10 ideas for more focused practicing

It can be difficult to keep practice sessions focused and productive. Distractions, burnout, boredom, and bad habits get in the way of progress. Try some or all of these, see what works well for you, and make the most of your practice time.

Photo,  woodleywonderworks. (license)
Photo, woodleywonderworks. (license)
  1. Prepare yourself mentally. Before you start, take a few minutes for meditation, prayer, introspection, deep breathing, self-awareness, or whatever else helps you set aside the concerns of daily life and get in the zone.
  2. Prepare yourself physically. Stretch, hydrate, dress comfortably. Get enough sleep and exercise and eat a balanced diet. Protect yourself from repetitive-motion injuries and make sure your body can perform at its best.
  3. Embrace routine. Develop some habits around your practice schedule. A carefully-selected routine gets you into practice mode and reduces the chances of falling into procrastination. It also gives you a framework that can be fine-tuned when you have a new idea you would like to incorporate.
  4. Warm up. It doesn’t just mean bringing your instrument up to temperature. Do long tones, scales, articulation studies, or other things that get your instrument-playing muscles working together. Choose ones that demand your very best embouchure, voicing, breath support, finger technique, etc.
  5. Be goal-oriented. Know what you want to accomplish, as specifically as possible. Not “I’m going to practice my scales.” Try “I’m going to get my F-sharp major scale tempo up to sixteenth notes at 60 beats per minute with no wrong notes or hesitations.” Or even better: “I’m going to train my fingers to use that alternate D-sharp fingering in the top octave of the F-sharp major scale at 60 beats per minute with no incorrect or hestitant finger motions.” Goals shouldn’t only be technical; they can be expressive and interpretive, too. Make a list, and start checking things off.
  6. Seek variety. Don’t drive yourself crazy or die of boredom practicing one problem phrase for hours on end. Through experimentation, figure out how long you can really maintain focus and enthusiasm for a single practice task (10 minutes usually works well for me), and move to a new task when it gets less productive to work on the old one. You’ll come back to it later with fresh ears/eyes/fingers/lips.
  7. Take breaks. Take them frequently, but don’t leave them open-ended. Know exactly when you plan to get back to work, and what task you will be tackling next.
  8. Self-evaluate. You probably already have some kind of device you can use to record yourself. Listen back as though it’s somebody else playing. Make notes about what you hear. Pick the biggest-priority items and add them to your goal list.
  9. Escape distractions. You know what pulls you away from the task at hand. Hide it, silence it, power it down. How different would your practicing be if the only people or objects in sight were you, your instrument, and a music stand?
  10. Find inspiration. It’s hard to reach a performance goal if you aren’t sure what that goal sounds like. Don’t be afraid to listen to recordings or watch videos of your heroes—you will still sound like yourself, just a better-informed version of yourself. Listening to singers or players of instruments besides your can really open up your mind and ears, too.

Have additional tips? Leave a comment!

12(+) ways to practice a technical passage

A popular article from the Bulletproof Musician blog has been making the rounds on social media again, which, to oversimplify, recommends variety in your practice routine.

What is crucial is that you are keeping your brain engaged by varying the material.

One of the suggestions the author (clarinetist Christine Carter) makes is to practice passages “in different rhythmic variations.” She doesn’t go into detail because that isn’t the main thrust of the article, but here are some of my favorite ways of varying rhythms for practice.

Let’s take this example passage:

Original excerpt (from Piazzolla Tango Etudes, notation simplified)

The most obvious and common rhythmic variation for practice is to use uneven rhythms, alternating long and short notes. There are two ways to do it:

Methods 1-2: Long-short, then short-long

In all of these examples, note durations aren’t necessarily set in stone—they are just meant to show which are the long notes and which are the short ones. The first example above could alternatively be notated this way:

Method 1a

Those examples use groupings of two notes, a long one and a short one. We can extrapolate that to, say, groups of three notes, one long and two short. There are three ways to do that:

Methods 3-5: Long-short-short, short-long-short, short-short-long

Another variation would be groupings of four notes, done four different ways:

Methods 6-9

For additional practice, try groups of five, six, and so on.

Another extension of this technique is to keep the basic rhythm the same but shift it within the meter:

Methods 10-12

Use subtle anchoring to make this especially effective. Again, the possible variations are limited only by your imagination: try playing the passage in triplets instead of sixteenths, and then shift those within the meter.

I find these techniques to be an excellent way to keep some variety and interest in my practicing even when I’m stuck on a particularly frustrating passage. The Bulletproof Musician article suggests rotating between several passages in order to keep the routine varied, and I agree that is a useful way to practice, but I find that, in moderate doses, playing one passage in many different ways has similar effects.

Keep your practicing varied and goal-oriented!

Practice technique: anchoring

This is a technique I recommend often to students who are struggling with notey passages. I can’t remember where I picked it up, or whether “anchoring” is my own name for it or someone else’s. No doubt credit for this belongs to somebody smarter than I.

The problem that I sometimes see with my students (and, okay, occasionally with myself) is that fast passages are uneven and panicky. The student sees a long string of notes and frantically dives in, to the detriment of meter and tempo, and with notes accidentally omitted or added.

Let’s consider this excerpt:

from Debussy Première rhapsodie
from Debussy Première rhapsodie (clarinet)

It’s a challenging passage—shifting harmony, intervallic motion, awkward fingerings. This is a recipe for frustration using the old standby method of playing slowly with the metronome and gradually increasing the tempo. Instead, let’s set the metronome aside for a few minutes, and play the passage in an intentionally uneven way:

with added tenuto-accent-fermata
with added tenuto-accent-fermatas

Put lots of weight on the metric pulses (the “anchor” notes): play them long, loud, and with emphasis. Hold each fermata long enough to scope out the next four notes, then move through them as quickly as you accurately can, coming to rest again on the next fermata. Repeat the passage in this way as many times as you can stand.

Here’s what this accomplishes:

  • It makes you think about logical groups of notes, rather than trying either to process each note individually or to deal with the whole phrase as an overwhelming sea of notes. It’s the sweet spot between too much mental chatter and too little focus.
  • It encourages effective phrasing by treating the notes as leading toward downbeats.
  • It trains your ears to hear the notes in fours (at least in this 2/4 passage—try threes instead if the situation calls for it). Now as you return to playing the passage evenly, you are more likely to notice if you are omitting or adding notes.

To transition from this technique into a more performable approach, gradually decrease the duration of the fermatas and the weight of the accents, while continuing to mentally emphasize the anchor notes and place them carefully in tempo (time to get the metronome back out). Also try spacing the anchors farther apart as an intermediate step—one at the beginning of each measure, for example, or every few measures as appropriate.

Practice smart!

Memorization and practicing

I think memorization is a useful practice technique, even if you don’t intend to perform “from memory.” Memorization of music has several facets:

  • Aural memory: I should be able to sing the music (at least in my mind) from beginning to end with confidence and accuracy.
  • Content/visual/analytical memory: I should be able to more or less transcribe or describe the music from memory. This might include being able to picture the printed music, being able to describe it in reasonably specific terms (“then there’s a fast run up a C minor scale, ending on a long high F with a fermata”), and/or being able to discuss the formal and phrase structures. (I don’t think you necessarily need to be able to think in terms of formal classical music theory, as long as you have some kind of vocabulary for talking about music.)
  • Physical/muscle memory: If I have practiced in a thorough, detailed way, I should be able to more or less play on “autopilot.” I don’t want to perform in a disengaged way, but I do want to be able to focus my mind on non-technical things.
Photo, Rick Shinozaki
Edmund Welles bass clarinet quartet (L to R: Cornelius Boots, Jonathan Russell, Aaron Novik, Jeff Anderle). Photo, Rick Shinozaki

The benefits of memorization, even for not-strictly-from-memory performance, include:

  • Confidence born from deep mastery of the music.
  • The ability to handle minor on-stage crises, like a missed page turn or a sudden distraction, with ease and grace.
  • Internalization of the music in such a way that interpretation becomes natural, expressive, and personal.
  • Freedom from “reading” issues. Sometimes musical passages are made difficult by visual factors, like hard-to-read notation, a personal reading difficulty (such as dyslexia or poor eyesight, perhaps), or something that simply doesn’t “click” visually for the reader. If looking at the page is causing problems, then just don’t look.
  • Ability to take a step back from the page, literally and figuratively, which encourages greater connection with collaborators and audiences.

If you are already practicing in a thorough and deliberate way, you are probably well on your way to memorization already without any extra effort. Use good practice techniques and memorization together to support better preparation and performance.

Not good

I like to use a Socratic-ish method in my private lessons, and ask my students questions. It means that I have this conversation several times per day:

[Student plays.]

Me: How did that sound to you?

Student: Not good.

Me: What didn’t you like about it?

Student: It didn’t sound good.

Me: What aspect of it didn’t sound good to you? The tone? the pitch? the phrasing? the articulation?

Student: Um, I guess the articulation?

Me: What didn’t you like about the articulation?

Student: It wasn’t good?

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?

Photo, David Bailey
Photo, David Bailey

Often the “not good” is a combination of factors, but if my students can identify even one of them, then they can immediately start working in a focused way to improve it. If it’s just “not good,” then they tend to just play it again from the beginning without any clear approach to making it sound better, and repeat until frustrated.

Part of my job is to help them identify and verbalize the desirable and undesirable phenomena in their playing, and to teach them the techniques for manipulating the variables involved (breath support, voicing, embouchure, finger technique, and tongue technique, to name the most obvious ones). But it’s up to them to take that information and run with it. For my students to become independently-functional musicians, they need to learn to listen critically to themselves and troubleshoot.

For yourself and for your students, don’t be satisfied with bland value judgments (it sounded “good” or “bad”). Be factual and descriptive about what you hear, and tackle problems in a methodical way. Practice smart!

Learning fingerings as shapes

I observe that many woodwind players, when learning a new fingering—whether a beginner learning a standard fingering or an advanced student learning a new alternate fingering—tend to think of them as sequences: “This finger plus this finger and this finger and this key over here.” Sometimes my students even want to recite the fingering aloud as they add one finger at a time, and then finally play the note. The problem with this is that there is obviously no time for such a procedure when playing music.

I now occasionally find that I have the opposite problem: a student will ask about a fingering, and I will discover that I am not prepared to verbalize it. I need to pick up the instrument, do the fingering, and then explain which keys I am pressing. My fingers know how to make the right shape, even if I can’t immediately recall the list of keys involved.

Photo, Bassonist26
Photo, wfiupublicradio

To learn new fingerings in the most efficient and practical way, move as quickly as possible to the “shape” stage. I suggest this method:

  • With instrument in hand, think through the fingering, referring to a fingering chart if necessary. If you need to, think in sequence about each finger that will move and where it will go, but don’t move yet.
  • When ready, move the fingers all at once, in a crisp and snappy way.
  • Freeze, and think through the fingering again. Did you form it correctly? If it is incorrect, don’t fix it “in place,” by moving a finger or two into place; release all fingers and start over. Fixing it in place habituates a sequence of events, rather than a single shape.
  • Put the fingering into context (a scale, a musical passage, etc.) using a metronome set on a very slow tempo. The object at this point is to succeed at forming the fingering shape accurately and on cue. Speed up only as you are certain that you can maintain 100% accuracy. If your fingers don’t move simultaneously, you are wasting time cementing a sequence.

Practice hard smart!