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Dr.

Jacqueline Leclair
Associate Professor of Oboe and Woodwind Area Chair
Schulich School of Music of McGill University

PRACTICE TECHNIQUES

Productive practice is serious fun, only as challenging as is productive, very inventive,


and always focuses on the positive. You bring all your practice on stage with you to
perform, not just the good practice. So make all your practice really good.
Rule of thumb: Practicing music "the way it goes" is of limited productivity compared
with strategic practice that breaks up the materials and works on them in various ways
(below). Playing through music as written is fine, but in my mind, should comprise only a
small percentage of practice time. (Of course, close to a performance, one should
frequently play through the music as it will be performed to be well-prepared.)

JOURNAL
Keep a practice journal to record all aspects of your progress over the weeks, months, and
years. Write down your teachers’ and coaches’ advice.

BREAK IT DOWN
•Practice notes/intervals only, all the same duration (metronome at 54 or so, one or two
notes per beat), focusing on tuning, tone, relationships, etc. Slur everything. If you can
play all the intervals perfectly, with good intonation, matching tone, clean transitions,
then it makes sense to move on and add more detail. But first, play intervals only, all-
slurred. (Tonguing hides all kinds of weaknesses.)
•Practice only basic material, anchor notes only, all slurred. Remove all auxiliary notes,
ornaments, passing tones, etc. Practice until the basic skeleton of the phrase is perfect and
convincing. Then gradually add the other notes and articulation, maintaining the
convincing qualities you practiced with the basic notes only.

•Practice at 1/4 tempo with the metronome. Enhance phrasing, play very expressively.
Slow down all material correspondingly, grace notes, for example.

CROSS TRAINING
•Plan out a practice session of, say, an hour in intervals of 5 to 10 minutes. For each
interval, set an actual timer and the rule is you must stop practicing when the time is up.
Plan what exactly in detail to practice and the aspects to focus on during the short
intervals of practice. When the timer rings, stop and assess in detail how the practicing
went. Plan what that material needs the next time you practice it. Then take several
seconds and plan the next short practice interval of music on DIFFERENT material, do
the same: plan, execute, assess in short, timed intervals throughout the practice session of
an hour. If you are practicing, for example, a chamber music piece, a concerto, scales,
and long tones, alternate between them. Any one of those, you'll do only for only several
minutes before stopping and switching to other material.

Benefits:
-reduces stress and anxiety, because the tasks are very specific and short.
-Improves learning because cross training is more effective, cognitively, for
absorbing material, better than long chunks of time on one piece. If you practice an
orchestra excerpt for a total of two hours over the course of a week in four half-hour
chunks, you will learn less and be less accomplished than if you practice the orchestral
excerpt a total of two hours in 12 ten-minute chunks.
-Allows the musician to notice any overuse or misuse, discomfort/pain, etc more
effectively and correct it frequently
-Gives the musician a sense of purpose at the beginning and a sense of clear
accomplishment at the end. The musicians knows exactly what she accomplished because
the practice was highly organized and reflective throughout.

RHYTHMIC VARIATIONS to SOLIDIFY TECHNIQUE


•Practice with the metronome at 50, playing the material in the following rhythm, all
slurred (no articulation at all): a long note, worth almost two clicks of the metronome
with a short crescendo at the end, a VERY fast, forte, and clean note right before the 2nd
click. This short note should be as short as possible, any shorter and it wouldn't be a note.
NO CHEATING! Continue alternating the long note with a crescendo at the end, and the
loud, short note. Each time you start a long note, bring the dynamic down to piano and
play a short crescendo leading to the forte, short note.
While you are playing the long note, REVIEW and ASSESS the short note and arrival on
the long note you just played; and PLAN the short-note-to-long-note you are about to
play.
While using this technique, ignore repeated notes and rests. Play only the intervals other
than unisons. Include grace notes, etc, and treat them the same.
The CRESCENDO and LOUD SHORT NOTE are crucial to this technique. Make very
sure you include those details.
•Practice the same as above, but start with the short, forte note ON the metronome's click.
Play a short crescendo to forte right before the 2nd click, placing the short note right on
the click. Many people find they have to concentrate quite carefully to play the short note
on the click rather than before it. Remember to make a big crescendo toward the end of
the long note, play the short note very strongly, and then reduce the dynamic to piano at
the beginning of each long note.

•Practice the same techniques as above: long/short and short/long, but play TWO very
short notes.
•Practice the same techniques as above: long/short and short/long, but play THREE very
short notes. You can play as many short notes as you like, but probably five would be
enough.
NB: Virtually no repertoire is at as fast a tempo as the short notes you will play in these
techniques. Practicing like this, you will play 100% of the intervals super-fast. As you
clean it up so that each interval is very clean, you will be as well-prepared as possible to
perform the music as it actually goes. I find this technique absolutely invaluable. Keep in
mind, this technique can be done even in repertoire with very wide intervals.

Also, please note this technique is great for music of all tempi, not just rapid passages.
Slow music benefits from this practice as well.

ADDING MATERIAL FAST but GRADUALLY


•Also for improving technique: when learning a passage, playing with the metronome at a
pretty fast tempo once you've learned the notes/intervals pretty well. Play the passage
beginning at the first note each time: stopping on the 2nd, then stop on the 3rd note, then
the 4th, the 5th, and so on to the last note of the passage. Do this until each note feels
completely solid and convincing, well-voiced when you arrive on it.

DYNAMIC VARIATION
•Practice materials like scales and arpeggios extremely quietly, ppp, striving for
evenness, good response, good intonation, etc.

PHYSICAL CHALLENGES to IMPROVE FOCUS


•When you are able to play a complete work, excerpts, étude, etc, play a run-through
standing on one foot to challenge concentration (those who can do so). Also, while
playing standing on one foot, certain bad habits become impossible (leaning forward, and
some kinds of excess motion, for example).
•When you are able to perform run-throughs of a work, a recital, a concerto, whatever it
is you have coming up to perform, perform it for others often, daily if possible. If you
are tired, and really don't feel like running through your program, that's the BEST time to
play a run-through. Knowing you have played lots of run-throughs, and that you can get
through your recital even late and night when you are dead tired will give you confidence
on the concert day.

METRONOME TECHNIQUE to IMPROVE MENTAL and MUSICAL


FLEXIBILITY
•Practice with the metronome representing different parts of the beat: the 3rd sixteenth-
note of the quarter-note, the 2nd 16th of the quarter-note, and the 4th sixteenth-note of
the quarter-note. This builds flexibility. To get started, SAY with the metronome,
"THREE, four, one, two, THREE, four, one, two, THREE, etc." with "three" on the click.
Gradually shift to un-accentuate "three" and accentuate "one". Then play scales, Mozart
Concertos, etc using the metronome like this. Do the same to play the 2nd and 4th
sixteenths on the click.

•Practice sixteenth-note passages with the notes grouped in three and five notes per
metronome click. Practice triplet passages in groups of two, four, and five, irrespective of
how the music is notated.

CONTRACT INTERVALS to be as SMALL as POSSIBLE


•To learn music with many large leaps - whether Baroque, Modernist, or any other period
- play the intervals in the closest positions you can (the smallest intervals possible). Learn
the lines like that, and SING them like that with your voice. Really know the music well
in close position. You will find that, when you return the large intervals, you'll retain the
singing quality (good intonation, evenness, and phrasing) in your interpretation. This is
extremely valuable, and greatly improves interpretation.

CHUNK FAST PASSAGES


•In fast passages with more than five notes, group the notes in groups of two, three, four,
or five. Prepare each group separately, on its own. When each group is feeling great, play
them successively, but play the last note of each group long, two or three beats long.
Then go on and play the next group. Do the same, so each final note of each group is
long. Ultimately, playing the passage as written, but always keep the groups in your mind
as separate, individual phrases....with lots of phrasing. You could think of the groups as
train boxcars, and the passage is the whole train. The boxcars always remain distinct.
This is a great help for mental clarity and for playing fast passages with order and beauty.

AWARENESS TECHNIQUES
•While practicing, scan your body frequently, find any overworking and release it.
Monitor how balanced you are, if you are falling into any bad habits you can then
counteract, etc.
•While practicing, focus on the back of your body and think about the space and
furniture/walls, etc that are behind you. This tends to improves confidence, awareness,
and focus.

MENTAL PRACTICE
•Do mental practice away from your instrument or voice, "playing through" the material
with your eyes closed as VIVIDLY as possible. This counts as real practice and poses no
risk of overuse injury.

SING
•Sing through the music slowly, focusing on the intervals. Use a piano if you need to.
Singing everything you are going to play. This is a huge help. If you can't SING the
intervals you are practicing, learning to sing them will greatly improve the quality of your
performance.

MEMORY
•Learn music from memory even if you will not perform it from memory. Practice from
memory, even in short bits, as much as possible while still retaining accuracy and detail.

DISTRACTED RUN-THRUS
•To check what parts of a piece/excerpt/etude, etc need more work before being
completely ready: Run through the music purposefully NOT concentrating or focusing
well. Play in a distracted manner; and the material that is well-prepared will be fine. The
material that is not as well-prepared will be shaky or will have mistakes. Then you know
what to practice to finish your preparation. This is also a good preparation technique for
concerts when one might find distractions. Another good thing to do is practice with poor
lighting sometimes; since one sometimes has to perform with strange or poor lighting.

To be good at performing while distracted, practice doing so.


IN YOUR ENDS ARE YOUR BEGINNINGS
•Learn music starting at the end of the piece/etude/excerpt, working your way to the
beginning. Feeling most confident and familiar with the last part of a piece/etude/excerpt
is advantageous; because toward the end is when one is more fatigued, so where extra
confidence is helpful to have.

NO SECOND CHANCES
In performance, one has only one chance to play any given note or passage. In practice,
we are training ourselves for performance.
A musician who restarts once or twice before “really” playing something during practice
is training himself to play like that, with false starts. He is training his subconscious mind
to believe that it’s okay to make a mistake because we can always go back and have
another shot at it. We do not perform music like that, however. We have only once
chance in concerts.
Thus, in practice, decide what you are going to play, prepare, commit to it, and then play.
If the first note does not come out, keep going. If the note isn’t perfect, keep going. If you
make a mistake later on, keep going. Remember whatever wasn’t up to snuff so you can
do better next time. But live with your mistakes, you will learn faster.

The legendary trumpeter, Bud Herseth, who was principal trumpet with the Chicago
Symphony Orchestra for 53 years (that is not a typo) offered many pieces of advice to
students. You can find lists of these tips online. One is, “Never practice, always
perform.” I think at least part of this advice is related to this idea of committing to
whatever you are going to play next in your practice session, and then doing so, with no
restarts. Perform!

TESTING, TESTING…
Record yourself as frequently as possible, every day, ideally. Evaluate your performance
for tone, pitch, rhythm, style, expression, dynamics, clean technique, etc. Listen once for
each topic, so several listenings to evaluate each recording thoroughly. Listen with good
quality earphones or speakers whenever possible. Make notes about your recordings in
your practice journal.
Also, record your chamber ensembles playing run-thrus and discuss the recordings as an
ensemble after everyone listens to them. This practice can accelerate chamber music
progress. It is even possible to record yourself in orchestra or wind ensemble rehearsals
to evaluate how well you are performing in those contexts, and plan out how you might
improve.
RECORD ADVICE
Consider recording your lessons, and even master classes whenever permissible. Most
students remember only a portion of what a teacher offers as advice. There is much to be
gained from recording lessons and classes, and reviewing the recordings later to gain
maximum benefit from the advice teachers have offered you.

BRAIN JUICE!
Smiling, even fake smiling, releases dopamine in your brain which makes you feel good
and increases lots of positive feelings and abilities like motivation and focus:
When we smile, fake or real, the contractions of the facial muscles slightly
distorts the shape of the thin facial bones. This slight distortion in their shape
leads to an increase in blood flow into the frontal lobes of the brain and
increases in the release of dopamine (Iwase et al., 2002, Neuroimage
17:758). As a result, walking around all day with a smile on your face will
bias your mood to be happier. Not only will you be happier but your smile
might spontaneously induce the release of dopamine in someone else's
brain—now that truly demonstrates the power of a smile.

© Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D. Author of Your Brain on Food (Oxford, 2010)

But stopping there would be missing the complete story. Pleasure is just the
tip of the dopamine iceberg. Dopamine’s impact on the body is felt in many
different areas, including motivation, memory, behavior and cognition,
attention, sleep, mood, learning, and oh yeah, pleasurable reward.

Kevin Lee, "The Science of Motivation"

Incorporate frequent SMILING into your practice routine and other routines. Doing so
produces only good effects, and can greatly increase your practice productivity and sense
of motivation.

Some specific suggestions: Get in the habit of smiling as you assemble your
instrument/get set up. Smile each time you change the material you are practicing. Smile
every time you take a short or longer practice break. If you can smile WHILE playing, do
so often. Smile as you finish practicing and pack up. 