As the dog days of summer come to a close and the fall season begins, I started thinking about the concept of practice and the many ways and means to improve as an instrumentalist. I think many people make a mistake of thinking any time spent playing an instrument by themselves is practicing. If the object of a practice session is to cover a certain amount of material in a certain amount of time and you finish sounding exactly the same as when you started, I think you’ve wasted your time unless you played everything perfectly. Over the years I have told students countless times, “I would rather have you play 2 bars perfectly, than play the whole book in the same way you always play.” Repetition is only good when some new improvement is added to your repertoire. To cover material with the same flaws in your playing is not only a waste of time, but actually teaches you to be satisfied with the status-quo.
I want you to start thinking of your practice room as a research and development laboratory where you try out new experiments and solidify the desirable concepts you already have. Rather than just putting in practice time without any goal in mind, every session should have a specific goal. There are many different goals possible in a practice session. There’s maintenance practice, where you just try to stay in shape with the level you have attained. This is useful when under a time constraint. However this should never become the everyday mode of practice. There is audition preparation, where you take the level you have attained and apply it to basically excerpts. This will not improve your playing at a fundamental level, because it doesn’t allow you to get to enough of an elemental level, because of the necessary concentration of performing excerpts, which require different styles and note perfect execution. If you have a recital to prepare for, that is not going to improve your playing in a fundamental way either, because you will learn the repertoire using the skills you have, rather than improving those skills. The only way to to improve those basic skills is to isolate them down to their most simple level. Some of the most valuable practice I’ve ever done would probably be classified as “noodling.” Example; taking two notes, like slurring middle G# to middle B and spending 10 minutes seeing how smooth I can play that slur. Trying many different speeds of moving the slide or the air, until I found the absolute best possible slur, maybe one that no one ever heard before, not even me. But it was in my head, or if it wasn’t, I heard it in the many experiments I did and said to myself, “thats the one I want.” Then I spent time getting good at being able to do that slur by itself, before I tried to put it in a musical context. I have also done that with things like articulation, vibrato, multiple tonguing, etc.
Some things you can get good at by just spending time doing them. Take high register for instance. If you want to get good at playing high, simply spend a lot of time playing high. This applies to low register playing as well. This brings me to the most important idea in this article; your practice room is your laboratory. You will have successes and failures in your laboratory. The failures are just as important as your successes, because that’s how progress is made. When you start working on high or low registers which are not in your normal range, it’s going to sound bad at first, but that’s what your practice room is for. If you push the envelope it should be in the privacy of your laboratory, not in public. When I’m working on loud playing, (which I don’t enjoy, but necessary)I do it in the privacy of my practice room, and I push it way beyond the level I’m going to perform at. I wouldn’t want anyone to hear me do this, but I am trying to improve my skill in this area, and I do it in my lab, not in public.
Many times I have said to someone who played something for me, “is that the way you want that to sound?” The answer is usually “no.” I will then say, ” lets do something about it.” Then we will take the problem down to it’s most basic level. The student always wants to go ahead and not really spend time on that particular aspect, but I always make them go back and completely find an answer to that one thing, which is the beginning of the new player we are trying to create.