Practicing seems to be something that most people feel they could work on or improve. To be honest, for most people life just seems to get in the way. After a hectic day at work it is sometimes difficult to motivate yourself to an hour or so of playing on your own in a room somewhere.
Very often it is difficult to know what to work on, and how to get the best out of the time that you do spend. It can also sometimes feel as though you go around in circles with a gradual or only small improvements. Sometimes it might feel as if the whole week has flown by and there just hasn’t been time to dedicate to getting some practice done.
Developing a practice routine can help you to gain better focus during the time that you do spend, make greater progress and provide the motivation to want to play much more often.
Of course, a practice routine will not help you after a 13-hour day at work but it may well help to get the time that you intend to practice planned so that these days can be avoided. I guess the key is to be prepared for a number of different possibilities. This could provide an opportunity that you may well have previously missed.
The first thing to do is to think about why you want to practice anyway. The most obvious reason, the first natural response, will be to say that you want to get better. But this statement, although well said with good intentions, will not really help to make any sort of difference in the longer term. The first step is to decide what you are practicing for and the value of it. At Music College, I was lucky enough to have limitless amounts of time and to get into the nitty-gritty of all of the playing issues I had. I simply cannot do that now with a young family and a full time job.
So the first question, why are you looking at practicing and what do you need from it? I want to practice so that I can improve breathing control, pitch range and develop articulation. These are areas on which to focus and gives a direction for future thought when planning out practice times. Now focus on the why. What is driving you to do this and will this driving force be good enough to carry you through when things get a little tougher at work or at home? My reasons, by way of an example, are that I would like to improve so that I can perform well in an orchestra that I have just joined, I would like to start working in a brass quintet and want to have skills that are more honed so that we can play good pieces and simply because I enjoy playing!
I think it is important to decide on reasons for this, as it can be a real motivating factor. It also allows you to make a promise to yourself and provides an aim or a goal. (Take a look at the blog post on New Year’s Resolutions for more about goal setting)
So what should a practice routine contain? There are a number of important factors that are generic to establishing good playing and should be incorporated into a practice session regardless of the focus on any particular technique. These include (and in no particular order):
1) Scale and arpeggio practice
2) Lip slurs
3) Breathing exercises
4) Long note practice
Then there is time for studies, technique exercises and pieces.
A Practice Session plan is available for you to download. Please click on My Practice Session Record. I recommend writing down a number of different plans that are possible to switch around so that the time doesn’t become a chore and that there is enough variety in what is being covered. If you are having lessons you will probably have a practice diary or notebook in which your teacher will write things down. If you are not having lessons, it is even more important for you to write things down. Try to keep a record of the issues you are having or the things you are working on. This could prove to be a very motivating document when you re-read it in a year or so. It will help you to keep track of progress and also allow you to look back at what is happening, reminding you of important things you may otherwise have forgotten.
Always start with a warm-up. I cannot stress this enough and it is something that appears to be ignored or not thought about time and again. It is a crucial part of your playing – without it your playing will simply not be what it could be. The body is a complex set of muscles that need warming up gently in order to work at the maximum potential. An athlete would never just walk onto a track and start running at full speed, and the same principle should apply to all musicians.
Your warm-up could include lip buzzing, mouthpiece playing, breathing exercises, long notes and some simple muscle stretches. It shouldn’t take very long and it will make all of the difference to what it is you can achieve.
After warm-up you could focus on some scales and arpeggios. The important thing here is not just to rattle through them as though they are irrelevant patterns and just an aid to muscle memory. Play these as little pieces of music and treat them with care and respect. Scales and arpeggios after all form the basis of all the pieces that you play. Work on the keys that your pieces or studies will be in later on in the practice session you are doing.
Next will come some technique work. You may decide to focus on breathing, tonguing (single, double or triple), legato playing, range and so on. Choose a study or exercise that allows you to work on these techniques. There are many books available for this, but my all time favourite has to be the Arban Cornet Method. It covers absolutely everything and is even available in bass clef.
Finally you can start to work on some pieces! Before you start, take a look through the music and think about what it is that is causing a problem. The temptation is always to start at the beginning and to see how far you get. This is ok for the first look through, but is not really an effective way of practicing. Working this way normally builds on mistakes and you will find that you end up playing the bits you can play well and never really getting anywhere with those awkward corners or difficult passages.
So where have we got? Here is a brief overview:
- Always start with a warm up routine and make this part of your practice relevant to what you hope to practice today or during the week
- Work on some lip slurs and flexibility exercises
- Look at relevant scales and arpeggios that fit with the music you are working on. Make sure you always think of these as little pieces of music
- Focus on one of your short term goals or aims with a chosen study or set of exercises
- Work on a piece or pieces of music that you would like to improve, with a focus on playing the bits you play well
- Finally – warm down by playing a few long notes, low notes or gentle music in the middle register of your instrument.
Take a look at the free practice diary sheet My Practice Session Record for a plan on how to write down your thoughts and ideas. Remember to think about reviewing what you have done as well. This is probably best completed on a weekly or monthly basis rather than a practice-by-practice basis. It is important to structure and plan what you are doing, but it is also important to avoid ‘paralysis by analysis’.
Practice techniques for good, secure development will come in a future blog