Helping students strike the perfect balance in each practice session
by Robert Rawlins, Ph.D.
Robert Rawlins is assistant professor and coordinator of music theory at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey. He is the author of A Simple and Direct Guide to Jazz Improvisation (Hal Leonard, 1995), Intermediate Serial Duets for Two Flutes (Southern Music, 1990) and has published many articles on various aspects of music theory and performance, including his regular contributions to the Bell. Several weeks ago, I asked a colleague how his summer was going, and he replied, “Oh, just trying to find time to practice.” Another said, “I’ve got so much administrative work to do that I hardly have time to practice.” But a more fortunate acquaintance mentioned, “I practice in the morning and go to the beach in the afternoon.” Lucky him.
It seems you can’t talk to a musician without the word practice coming up. It’s what we do, what we think about. It’s what bonds us as few nonmusicians would understand. All of us—music students, teachers and performers alike—recognize and accept the need to practice regularly. Yet we never seem to have the time to practice as much as we want.
With such restrictions on our time, we want to make the most of each practice session. How should we invest these precious blocks of time? Veteran musicians generally have worked out a strategy to deal with restricted practice time. Years of experience have taught the seasoned musician what needs to be practiced in order to keep in shape and to meet upcoming challenges.
But students need to give some thought to the subject. To assert that “my teacher tells me what to practice” does not suffice. You won’t always have a teacher. Some teachers work only on specific material at lessons and assume that students are practicing in a well-rounded fashion. Others are there to offer help and guidance, but they allow students to develop according to personal strengths and interests. Clearly, it behooves the student to give some thought to structuring practice time.
Deciding what to practice during a given practice session is largely influenced by how long that session will be. It is important to understand what can and cannot be effectively practiced within a given period of time. Trying to cram five or six activities into a 30-minute session, for example, would be foolish. On the other hand, spending 30 minutes on a single activity will limit overall development and progress. A half-hour of scales and arpeggios could be an effective component in an extended practice session, but it would be a wasteful way to spend a complete session. A happy medium must be struck.
Students must learn to pace themselves through longer practice periods. When practice sessions become extended, it is important to make sure they don’t turn into hours of drudgery. If something isn’t fun, we simply won’t do it, at least not for very long. An hour of tonguing exercises or two hours of scales out of a pattern book are not activities that any human being should be subjected to.
The longer a practice session becomes, the more it should resemble actual performance. Drill, isolation and repetition are essential elements of practice, but you can’t do these things all day. Go easy on such activities. Remember, the ultimate goal is to make music.
Charlie Parker is reported to have practiced 15 hours a day when he was young. Later in life, Parker owned a farm in Pennsylvania where he would relax when he wasn’t working. But he still practiced. I once spoke to a man who had lived near Parker, and he told me that Parker would improvise on songs all day—sometimes playing the same song for hours on end. Was he working and concentrating? Yes. Was it hard work and drudgery? Not at all. If I played like Charlie Parker, I’d play all day too.
So let’s get to specifics. Assuming that we don’t have 15 hours a day to practice—and we don’t play like Charlie Parker—what should we do with our practice time?
A daily routine. It’s almost impossible not to fall into a daily routine. All of us find a sequence of drills and practice material that appeals to us over time. We learn what works for us and what doesn’t. This is a good thing, but we want to be sure that our daily routines develop through thought rather than habit. We also want to keep them flexible enough to accommodate practice sessions of varying lengths.
Long tones. I always begin my practice session with long tones. Some musicians don’t do long tones; others swear by them. I like them. To me they feel like stretching before exercise. It’s a way of easing into things. I never fret, worry, strain or become exasperated about my tone when doing long tones. Instead, I just try to relax and get a big, unrestricted sound. I think about breathing, posture, finger position and all of the physical elements of performing.
The magic of long tones is that they afford us an opportunity to examine our playing habits at close range. It’s our chance to have complete control. How many times have we all tried to correct a bad habit, such as a faulty finger position or poor posture, only to find that we fall back into the same rut when challenged by difficult music? Long tones take the heat off. We can stand in front of a mirror and fine-tune every detail of our performing technique, a big first step toward establishing permanent good habits.
Remember, when you practice, you are reinforcing how you sound and how you feel at that moment. If you don’t like how you sound, or if you feel nervous or tense, then stop. Find something else that works for you.
How much time should be spent on long tones? It depends on how much time you have. Some days I spend a couple of minutes on them. Other days I spend five or ten minutes on long tones and then come back to them several hours later if I feel that tension has entered into my playing. Use long tones as a tool when you need them.
Melodies. Playing melodies is a great way to develop tone, intonation and interpretation. Like long tones, they can be used to reduce tension and focus on the most basic skills involved in playing an instrument. In addition, they embody a central concept.
Sometimes we become so involved in working on scales, technique, pieces and range, that we forget what our priorities are. Of what use is playing any instrument if you can’t play a simple melody and make it sound good? I’ve known students who could play all their major scales, read well and play difficult pieces accurately, but sounded terrible playing a simple song. Obviously, such students are on the wrong track.
I pause to play a few melodies many times during practice sessions, just for fun. I especially like slow movements by Bach, Verdi arias, and Billy Strayhorn songs. (How’s that for mixed company?) Playing from memory is important, as it helps get us past transferring written notes to sound and puts us closer to understanding the song as a whole.
Scales and arpeggios. Scales and arpeggios prepare us to play patterns we are likely to encounter in real music. No matter how many pieces you practice, you will never cover all of the possibilities that can be included in a simple scale-and-arpeggio routine.
Generally, once all of the major and minor scales are learned, with their associated arpeggios, it’s a good idea to turn to one of the many pattern books that are available. These often have titles such as Daily Studies, Finger Exercises and so forth. Since it would be nearly impossible to play through one of these volumes in its entirety each day, most musicians just pick a few favorites or rotate them over the weeks and months.
It is important to understand why we practice scales and arpeggios. I once asked a student if he was working on his scales, and he replied, “I already know them.” That’s like asking a baseball player if he went to batting practice and getting the reply “I already know how to bat.” We do the same exercises over and over again because they are, in fact, exercises. They are never “learned” in the sense that we can put them away and are done with them.
The first step, of course, is to learn the correct notes. Then they must be played evenly, at a reasonable tempo, with proper articulation. But an important benefit of scales and arpeggios that we sometimes forget is that they are tone studies. It’s one thing to single out a note and play it with a big expressive tone; it’s quite another to get that same tone when passing through it in a series of sixteenth notes. This is a skill that the best instrumentalists work on all their lives.
Etudes. Although étude is simply the French word for study, the designation means something more to a musician. Music that fits under this description generally goes beyond the “daily exercise” and qualifies as a musical composition. On the other hand, the purpose of such a work is pedagogical. So we might call an etude an exercise whose purpose is to instruct while sounding as musical as possible.
Since etudes are intended to instruct, it is important to go back to them once they are learned. Review is important. At some point, most musicians find it more advantageous to continue practicing the etudes they already know, rather than learning new ones.
The real value of an etude begins only after the notes have been learned. Then it becomes a valuable instructional tool for future use. It would be folly to work through an entire etude book over a period of several months and then permanently abandon it, placing it on the shelf. Learning should be cumulative. The musician seeks to create a repertory of music that has been mastered, not a list of pieces that were learned and then forgotten.
Pieces. Scales, studies and exercises have one overriding purpose—to teach. Musical pieces, on the other hand, may not have been written for this purpose at all. A musical composition stands as a work of art and is not necessarily intended to be instructional. This calls for a different practice strategy.
Etudes and studies generally include something of educational value in every measure. It is expected that students will practice such exercises in their entirety, often playing them start to finish without stopping. This is rarely a good approach to learning an extended musical composition, except in the final stages of preparation.
Pieces require much thought and fine-tuning. Passages need to be isolated and carefully worked out. Articulations, dynamics and countless nuances need to be considered. Pieces are essential in the development of interpretation and musicianship, but these skills won’t be acquired through sheer repetition. Patience and concentration are required.
Putting it all together.
So what should a typical practice session consist of? This, of course, depends on many factors—the instrument, time available, personal goals and level of development. For advanced wind players practicing between one and two hours a day, dividing the practice session into thirds is a common strategy.
For instance, you might begin a two-hour session with 40 minutes of basic exercises, including long tones, tonguing or vibrato studies, scales and arpeggios. The next 40 minutes will consist of etudes, with part of that time spent on learning new material and part on review. The final 40-minute segment will then be devoted to pieces, orchestral excerpts, improvisation, and sight-reading.
This basic plan leaves room for flexibility, includes much variety and provides a working strategy toward effective use of practice time.