I wanted to write a follow up article to my critically acclaimed practice method article “We Talking About Practice v. 02”. Just kidding, but thanks to everyone who has read it so far. If you haven’t, click here and make sure to check that out before reading the rest of this article, as it builds upon the information given in that post.
So I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that if you are trying out the sample practice template laid out in We Talking About Practice v. 02, you should now have a very organized approach to systematically breaking down musical material enabling you to not simply learn it well, but to learn it quite deeply. For many people, myself included, this is borderline game changing. When I would approach an audition list or a recital program in the past, I would usually end up just playing most of the list or program straight down until my face was too tired to continue. That was often my metric for if I got something done: was my face completely shot. I’m sure many brass players can identify with that sentiment. Strings, woodwinds, and percussion players – maybe not so much. But I would imagine most musicians can examine their practice and admit that making their practice time as efficient as possible is not always the first priority. It wasn’t until I became a husband and a dad, started a podcast, started live streaming my practice sessions, had a full time job, and had a private teaching studio that this changed. Efficiency is now the MOST important thing to me in my practice: how can I get the most quality out of my practice in the shortest amount of time.
So, the good news is really great news. Here we have a system that allows us to be maximally efficient in our practice. What’s the bad news then?
The bad news is that at best, my practice method is an organizational tool. Having organized practice is incredibly important, but if you don’t know what you’re trying to sound like, or what the style of a given piece is, then you’ll still need to figure those details out. For students, this is why you have a private teacher. In my opinion, this program can work incredibly well in tandem with a private teacher. This method can help a student with a busy schedule have the structure they need to feel confident about what to practice on which days they have decided to practice, and a teacher can focus on how to improve fundamental concerns and stylistic concerns on a given piece. For those without a private teacher (these things also apply to those with a teacher), you can spend the time you get back by practicing efficiently by listening to materials or with supplemental work. This is covered in more detail later in this post.
A big part of this method is not jumping ahead in the progression. If you are scheduled to play at 85%, you shouldn’t jump to 90 or 95%, even if you feel like you can. It’s important to slowly build progressively in order to maximize the deep learning that this program can offer. That being said, we also do not have to be dogmatic about any of this method. If a teacher wants to address stylistic concerns, and wants the student to play at 100% of the goal tempo in a lesson, but they are only at 60% in the program, this is fine. 1-2 repetitions at 100% will not undo many great repetitions at slower tempos. Teachers, if you are comfortable working with your students in the 90% range early on, I think this would be optimal. 90% work allows us to feel the musical phrases, while still being able to have control over the technical execution of that phrase.
Before we dig into the meat of this article, I did want to address some common questions I receive from people who have began running their own practice program.
By far the most common question I receive is: “Playing at 50% tempo is brutal on my chops and I feel like I’m not playing my best. What should I do?”. The simple answer is just to rest more often. The goal of 50% work is to ingrain all the the cues, articulations, dynamics, and even musical phrasing perfectly. Endurance work CAN be an added bonus, but should not be the main focus of that percentage. Ideally speaking we should try to stop before our chops get too tired, and rest often, in order to build strength and play on the freshest chops possible for as long as possible. I think this extends into your mental focus as well. I believe focus can be trained the same way any skill can be trained, so we need to start somewhere and try to build progressively. If we do our math correctly, playing a phrase at 50% tempo will take twice as long to perform. Knowing that, if we play half of the phrase at 50%, the muscular stimulus will be the same as playing the whole phrase at 100% tempo. So, if you need a place to start, trying getting through half the phrase and then rest. If you cant do that much, it’s fine. Either rest more, or choose different material that wont tax you quite as much.
Another common question I get is “Only 1 repetition at 75% percent?? What if I don’t play it perfectly? Should I do it again?”. No. You shouldn’t, and I’m going to explain why. When playing a concert, an audition, a jury, etc, we get one shot to perform. That’s it. So, we need to practice the way we perform. If you’re the type of practicer that will make a mistake, stop, start over, and try to get through it again, you are not practicing in a way that reflects the demand that performing asks of you. On that sample practice template, weeks two and three have three different tempo ranges: fast, medium, and slow. Every day, you will play a section one time at a fast tempo. This is built in so that you have a chance to progressively practice performing. If things don’t go perfectly, this is fine. Remember what didn’t go well. Maybe even write it down. On your medium and slow tempo work, you will have plenty of repetitions to ingrain the proper execution of that section. Ideally speaking, the fast repetitions each week will get better the more slow repetitions you do. So, the week you do 85% might actually be better than the week you do 75%. The medium repetitions are programmed for only two repetitions. This is for the same reason. If you know you only get two chances to improve at something, your focus has to be incredibly high. This kind of focus mirrors the focus we need to perform at a high level and succeed. In the end, we’re all human, so mistakes are bound to happen. It’s not a big deal, and it doesn’t have to make us worry. Try to address why a mistake happened, and be diligent in implementing that solution into the slower tempi, and you’ll be just fine!
Now that we’ve gotten all that out of the way, I’d like to share with everyone a list of tips for success that my wife, Kathleen Costello (principal clarinetist of the Alabama Symphony Orchestra and super supportive partner), came up with to supplement the practice method. She’s found success running some modified programs, and she’s worked very hard to come up with materials that will help people better understand how to get the most out of their practice. Here are her:
TIPS FOR SUCCESS
Success with this method is based on perfect repetitions. As a result complete immersive concentration is essential when engaging in the work. If you become mentally or physically fatigued, take short breaks as you feel they are needed. The practice of recalling your attention can also be useful here — it’s a skill in and of itself and needs to be developed.
- Have your concept clear before you start. In other words, understanding the phrasing, (nuance, direction, line, color, articulation, dynamics, etc.) is very helpful as you will imprint these ideas while starting at the slow tempos. It also causes the work to become more interesting and engaging. With the time you save in practicing this way, invest some time in understanding the music on a deeper level. Study piano parts and/or orchestral scores, and listen to some great musicians to gain inspiration. If you are a student, get in the habit of understanding the historical context of your piece by doing some basic research.
- Limit Distractions. All the advancements in technology can be both a blessing and a curse. If we can harness all the advantages for our benefit they can offer incredible conveniences, and help us reach our goals even faster. However, studies have shown the constant interruption offered by our phones can be quite detrimental to efficient learning. So I have two simple words for you: AIRPLANE MODE. Trust me, everyone in your life can learn to live without your interaction for the next 30 minutes!
- Use positive cues. Slow tempos will allow more time for healthy execution, so take advantage of this to include positive cues in relevant places. For example, if you struggle with wide leaps (or feel fearful of them) use a positive physical cue like “support from lower note”, or “fast air”. Always avoid negative phrasing (for example: “don’t choke”).
- Record yourself. A good starting point is to take the medium percentage range on any given day and record your first repetition. Listen back and make some notes about what you can improve. Then record your second repetition to see if you accomplished your goals. If you are running an audition program there will be specific recording protocols as you progress.
- Assistance work. The idea here is to give a little extra love to your weaknesses, or an area of weakness. If you would like to develop more articulation speed, instead of relying solely on improvement in this area through the program material, add some fundamental exercises to work on this separately. If you are a student, your teacher can definitely help you with this!
- Metronome Games: From time to time it is a good idea to check in and make sure the metronome is a constant help and not becoming a crutch in any way. Try setting the metronome at half speed (every other beat) to see if you line up with the click. You can also try playing or starting on the upbeats (this can be very tricky depending on the material!)
- Interleaved Practice: I got this idea from Noa Kageyama, otherwise known as the Bulletproof Musician (if you haven’t checked out his excellent website you should! thebulletproofmusician) He points out that often our second repetition of an excerpt or section of a piece is much more polished than the first. To work on improving the quality of your first repetition, he suggests interleaving, or moving back and forth between material. With this system that would look like playing your fast repetition material, moving onto the medium repetition material for one repetition, and then moving onto one repetition of the slowest column material, and then back to the first column. It may not be necessary to do this every time you sit down to work, but it does better simulate a true run-through or performance, which is an important task to get your brain accustomed to.
- Special considerations: If your excerpt or piece has a tempo range, consider setting your goal tempo at the upper end of the range. This is particularly true for orchestral excerpts on auditions, or preparations to play a piece with an orchestra. Tempos are usually beyond our control in these orchestral situations, and an audition committee could ask you to play something again faster. If an excerpt is technically virtuosic, this is especially important to feel completely prepared.
I hope this blog post is helpful in clearing up any confusion with the sample practice template I provided. Ultimately, I hope this to be something that can help people. I’m not trying to pretend I made up the idea that slow practice is important, I’ve just found a way to organize it in a format I think people will be able to adhere to. Because lets be honest, whether its my method, or your own practice method, the best practice system is the one that you can adhere to.
Please don’t hesitate to send me your questions. You can do it on my website through the contact page, you can send it to me on any of my social media sites, or just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also check out my live stream on Twitch and ask me there, it’s a big reason why I’ve started live streaming. I enjoy talking about the trumpet and helping people with the trumpet. Join me on my Twitch page
Until next time,