Posted by dougbutchy on 21st October 2010
While working with a student this morning on an honors band solo, several thoughts about practicing occurred to me. Actually, I’ve always had these thoughts about practicing, but I don’t think I ever bothered to write them down. What follows is a list of my basic beliefs about practicing.
1. We must teach students HOW to practice! All too often, we tell students, “Go home and practice.” But, what if they don’t know what to do? I think many of our students simply (hopefully) take their instrument and music home, start at the beginning of the song, play to the end and then say, “Okay, I’ve practiced.” This method is not effective, if they don’t know what to do. In my personal experience, I never practiced in high school (sorry Travis!), but I didn’t think I ever needed to. I could sight-read the music easily, and never really struggled with the repertoire on which we were working. This was fine until I got to college and really needed to practice. Then I struggled…because I never learned how to practice, I did not excel at anything I was required to do. After 2 years of listening to my saxophone professor telling me how to practice, I finally wised up and started listening to him (after a near disaster at one of my fist juries!). If we do not teach our students how to practice, their efforts will be futile – they will become easily frustrated and give up.
2. Students must have a practice plan in mind. Students should set small goals for what they want to accomplish during each practice session. This will give them an idea of what to work on. Depending on time availability, it could be one section of music, one phrase, one measure, or even playing that one note perfectly in tune.
3. Students must have a sound in mind. This is critical! If students do not have any idea what the trumpet should sound like when it is played at a high level, then how do they know what they should be striving for? Encourage your students to listen to great artists on their instrument – then they will truly begin to understand what they should sound like!
4. Students must practice the technique of the instrument before practicing the music! In the world of music education (especially those involving ensembles) we often do this backwards. We give the students the repertoire, and then they begin to learn how to play the music. But, are they really practicing the instrument. We all “teach music through performance in band”, and that is certainly important and necessary, but students must learn how to play their instruments in order to do this. Nothing helped me to play my repertoire better than sitting in a practice room working on my 12 major scales (with a metronome!!) every morning. Not only did this practice get my fingers and technique more coordinated, but it also gave me an opportunity to work on my air support and tone. We must become masters of technique on our instrument – then we can truly make music!
5. I believe in 3 Golden Rules of Practice. (1) GO SLOW!! The best advice I ever received was from my collegiate saxophone professor. “You should never make a mistake when you are practicing.” How is this possible? You should be going slow enough so that you never make a mistake. If we make mistakes while we are practicing, then we are practicing mistakes, and that is a waste of time. Slow down! Don’t worry about the tempo! You must first get down the basics – technique, air support, tone quality before you can ever play up to tempo! (2) Work on Small Sections. Only focus on those small parts that are giving you trouble. Don’t worry about “practicing” stuff you can already play! Break it down to the smallest parts…are specific notes giving you problems, then work those two notes back to back. (3) Repeat, Repeat, Repeat! Take those small sections and play them over and over and over until you feel totally comfortable with them. USE A METRONOME!! Each time you feel comfortable, move the metronome up one marking. A gradual increase in pulse is imperative….if you go too fast too quickly, you will be practicing mistakes. You must give your mind time to get the fingers in sync.
6. Even if your playing improves only minutely during a practice session, you are still improving! Isn’t this the goal for every session? You should walk away from every practice session with a sense of accomplishment, not matter what. If you employ effective practice strategies, then you will have improved. If you don’t feel that you have improved (even ever so slightly) then you may want to look at your routine and see if it is effective. This thought was the one that brought me back to the instrument hour after hour for more practice!
I’m interested in your thoughts on practicing, and what key points you may pass along to your students! I’m sure I’ll have more to share as I think of them!