Practicing Techniques

A musician can never stop practicing anytime in their career. I believe it was the great cellist Rostropovich (or was it Casals) who said, "If I don't practice for one day, I notice a decline in quality; if it's two days without practice, my wife notices; three days, my neighbor notices."

Over the years my practice habits have sagged. Various illnesses and physical problems struck me down hard and repeatedly for about 5 years. And, to be honest, my passion for my instrument also sagged during those periods. I eventually went through a crisis in confidence and self-respect.

During that time I saw the movie Spiderman 2. In the movie, Spiderman loses his "powers" for some mysterious reason, but which had something to do with lack of belief in himself. He goes through a crisis of identity. I related to his condition at the time. My playing had not changed much from the outside, but my belief in myself as a strong player had declined seriously.

Over my long "recovery" of confidence, I rediscovered the most basic habits of good practicing. They are: Consistency, Physical Relaxation (Poise), Patience, Focus and Efficiency. These habits, of course, are quite general and can be applied to any complex individual task.

Practicing is a lonely task. It is tedious, repetitive, frustrating, and seemingly endless. The "myth of Sisyphus", where Sisyphus pushes a huge boulder up a mountain everyday, only to find it at the bottom again the next, exemplifies the endless tediousness of practicing. But by cultivating the basic habits outlined above, one can chip away the mountain, or at least find the most efficient route to keep the boulder at the top more and more consistently.

Let's look at each habit more closely.

Consistency: This is the most basic rule for accomplishing any long term project in life. And it is primary to being a succesful musician. One of my old teachers, Robert Marcellus, claimed that the students who practiced their scales daily were the ones most likely to succeed. A local trumpet player, whose playing is the most consistent I've ever heard, warms up exactly the same way before any rehearsal or concert.

I begin the day with slow scales, which can be described as combination of long-tones and scales. I start with the lowest register of the clarinet, where the air can be relaxed and full, where the embouchure can be the softest. I play the scale one octave, whole notes, using a full sound, then descend the next half step up, continuing up the to the highest range of the instrument. I also add some legato tonguing, to be sure that muscle is also poised and focused. This way I slowly warm up the body: fingers, embouchure, tongue and air without stress. This warm also helps me be sure my body is Relaxed and Poised.

Consistency does not just mean regularity here. One must be consistent in attitude and focus during each session and during the entire practice session.

Patience: One cannot practice in a hurry. That is when the most damage is done. An uncanny aspect of the body is that it learns fast, even mistakes. A passage played wrong once takes three times to correct. Slow down, mentally and physically. Find the level at which you can play something and work from there. Anger and frustration accomplish nothing. Take a break if you are on edge. Taking many small breaks helps me stay balanced and focused.

This brings me to the next habit, Focus. One cannot practice without being alert and focused. One of the most difficult aspects of being a professional musician is the odd hours we have to keep. My orchestra can schedule performances or rehearsals anytime from 10 AM to 8 PM. My body and mind must be able to focus at any time. The obvious implication here is the importance of proper rest, diet and exercise to maintain our real instrument, the body.

Practice time must be kept clear of distractions to allow focus as intense as a surgeon's in order to refine and improve the smallest details in one's playing. There is no other way to improve. Bludgeoning away at something without close attention will only ingrain sloppy habits. This brings me to efficiency of thought and action.

Efficiency: Like a scientist, we must closely observe patterns in our playing and analyze limitations for solutions. Developing problem solving skills is crucial. Experimentation is recommended if a solution is not obvious. A good teacher can help student learn efficient problem solving.

If I am learning a difficult passage, the first thing I do is isolate the biggest problem spots. Let's say I am learning a passage of fast sixteenth notes where a group of four notes are slowing me down. I drop the rest of the passage and focus on problem group. I may repeat them slowly a few times, or try different rhythms to gain finger dexterity.

But I also look at all aspects of those notes and check off what might be causing the glitch. Is my air steady through those notes? This is often the hidden problem with technique on a wind instrument. Without steady air, no passage will flow easily.

Then I look at each change of fingering in the passage. Are the fingers moving as efficiently as possible, staying over the keys without tension or gripping? I may notice that the fingerings between just two notes requires 5 or 6 fingers to move. This may be the tripping point. If so, I'll create a trill exercise using just those two notes. This is just one example of how detailed focus can improve one tiny passage in a larger work.

During this detailed analysis, I occasionally remind myself to "stay in the room". By this I mean keep the body and mind in the physical present, so as not to lose awareness of creeping tension in any part of body or mind while focusing narrowly on a detail. Staying open physically and mentally during tedious practice is probably one of the most important habits one can cultivate as a musician.

The underlying foundation of all good playing is belief in oneself. A musician cannot accomplish much without that basic self trust. But by employing the habits detailed above, one can gain confidence and control over one's body and instrument.

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8 comments for “Practicing Techniques

  1. Nick
    March 20, 2008 at

    Mr. Forrest told me that opening quote. So nice to see it again.

  2. March 8, 2007 at

    Steve and Kurt- Thanks for your comments. Kurt, I agree with the idea of short breaks. Additionally, after weeks or months of intense practice, I have found that after a few days off the good technique has blossomed and the bad habits have faded. Sometimes it’s beneficial to let the body reset its natural balance.

  3. March 8, 2007 at

    Deb’s comments suggest she will never mature as a guitarist.
    My main instrument was trumpet, and I completely agree with you, Steve. When I figured out that short breaks during a practice session helped, that’s when my playing really took off. I was practicing between four to six hours a day, and the improvement was obvious.
    By the way, some people record everything they do, even practicing. Your thoughts?

  4. March 4, 2007 at

    @Deb

    I think the difference in playing a wind instrument like the clarinet and playing the guitar should be noted. While you might find that taking weeks off from the guitar can benefit you, I think that much of that same benefit is lost if doing the same thing with a wind instrument. You might gain some perspective, but you lose a lot of lip. I play both wind and non-wind instruments (trumpet, guitar, piano) and find there is quite a difference. If don’t play piano for a few weeks, I can start again as if I’ve never stopped. Of course I’m not on the level of Rostropovich. But if I don’t pick up my horn for awhile it will take time to get my lip back.

  5. March 1, 2007 at

    Deb- You are SO right! But those long days of practicing gave you a great reserve. Yes, as you suggested, one should come at the instrument with the naturalness of riding a bike. But I’m sure you also agree that playing guitar is much more complicated than riding a bike. So how did it become so natural? All that practice paid off!

    best wishes,
    David

  6. March 1, 2007 at

    Jillian- Glad you are able to use this advice. Yes, efficiency is the keyword. I didn’t practice my scales much, but what I did practice, I did so efficiently, with microscopic intention.

  7. Deb
    February 28, 2007 at

    As a musician myself, I would have to disagree to a certain level here. I’ve been playing guitar for almost 18 years now. I used to practice 4-8 hours in one day sometimes! But on occasion, when I don’t pick up the guitar for weeks, I find that when I finally do pick up the guitar, I play a song I never heard of before – and it sounds ten times better than I have ever played it! Sometimes we need a little hiatus in what we love. Too much of a good thing is sometimes bad. Practicing is good, but if you’re a real musician in my opinion, and play from the ear, from the heart, and not just with the eyes (as far as reading music goes) then it’ll be just like riding a bike. You’ll never forget.

  8. February 22, 2007 at

    Thanks you! I’ve forwarded this to students. Success in the music business is not just about talent. It took me years to understand how to practice efficiently, and I always wondered, “what if I’d practiced my scales as an undergrad?”…

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