Learning how to practice is as important as practicing itself. Many students spin their wheels just playing through pieces, repeating the same mistakes over and over, and thus not getting much accomplished. I have found several practice principles and techniques that make practicing efficient and effective.
The hardest part of practicing is opening the case.
My most effective practice sessions include the following components:
- Sufficient warmup (long tones, scales, and tonguing)
- Consistent use of a metronome
- Working from a slow tempo to a faster than needed tempo
- Rhythmic games for mastering technical passages
One of my favorite practice games is called “Chunking.” This is best used to learn a passage of straight sixteenth notes. The rules of the game are:
- Use always start on a beat and end on a beat
- Start with playing one beat at a time
- Start slow and increase the tempo. Only go up four clicks on the metronome as you get faster. Use the marble game for perfect results.
- After one beat is “Chunked,” then increase the chunk to two beats. Repeat two beats chunked from slow to fast.
- Then three beats…
- Then four beats…
- Finally play the passage as written.
You can get a lot accomplished in a thirty-minute practice session using “Chunking.”
The “Five Rhythms Game” is great for cleaning up your technique on any technical passage. It works great for straight sixteenth notes as well as passages with varied rhythms. For this exercise you’re going to disregard the printed rhythm and instead perform the passage in the following five rhythms:
- Perform the notes in a dotted eighth, sixteenth pattern
- Perform the notes in a sixteenth, dotted eighth pattern
- Perform the notes in triplets, slurred, with an accent on the first note of the triplet
- Perform again in triplets, but start on the second note of the passage
- Perform a third time in triplets, but start on the third note of the passage
These five rhythms, with the displaced accents and groupings, will clean up your technique, and it is almost like magic when you go back to play the passage as written.
Sight reading is often neglected in practicing. Really the best way to get better at sight reading is to do it. However, there is a great method book for sight reading called Music Spead Reading by David Hickman. This method trains your eyes to recognize how close note heads are to each other to enhance your reading speed. It also helps students to remember the key signature because each etude can be performed in any key.
With these above exercises, practice sessions can be enjoyable and productive. When I was in high school, my band director gave me a sweatshirt made by Nike as a reward for making into a regional honor band. The shirt has a quote on the back that has always motivated me to go ahead and open my case to practice.
Somewhere, someone is practicing, and when you meet them in head-to-head competition, they will beat you.
Marble game: get ten marbles (or skittles, or paper clips), play the passage perfectly and then move a marble across your music stand. Keep playing the passage and moving marbles across the stand until all ten marbles are moved. One catch though, if you make a mistake you move all of the marbles back and start over. ↩