Knowing what and how
Knowing what and how to practice will produce the incentive of progress
by Julie DeRoche
Director of Performance Education
G. Leblanc Corporation
Julie DeRoche is Leblanc’s newly appointed director of performance education. Prior to joining Leblanc, she served for many years as coordinator of the woodwind department and clarinet faculty at De-Paul University, Chicago. She served as acting second clarinet with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra during the 2000–2001 season and continues to perform and tour frequently with the CSO. In addition to her involvement with numerous chamber and orchestral groups, she now serves as immediate past president of the International Clarinet Association. Her instrument of choice is the Opus model Leblanc France clarinet. This is the fourth in a series of articles in which Julie details basic clarinet technique.
One of the most important things that a teacher can do is to provide his or her students with strategies and information that will allow them to develop strong fundamentals in all areas of their playing. And one of the most important things that a student can do is to practice properly so that he or she can achieve correctness in these areas.
Too often, students enter a practice room with few strategies for developing their performance skills. They know they must practice, but they do not know how to practice. And while teachers often give assignments, they are not always clear in their description of how to prepare the assignments correctly.
What does one practice, and exactly how does one practice it? Developing good practice habits from the start can be achieved through knowing the answer to both of these questions.
In past segments, I have addressed other basics of clarinet performance—good tone through good embouchure; methods for achieving clean, correct articulation; and proper techniques for holding the clarinet and positioning the hands and fingers. Each of these subject areas can be learned in clear and logical ways and must be practiced regardless of what the student is working on or performing.
In this segment, we will discuss what types of materials can be used to facilitate practicing in all areas, and we will explore specific ways to develop fluid, rhythmically accurate and, eventually, fast finger technique.
To begin with the first question—What does one practice?—I recommend dividing practice time into three segments, their lengths depending on the student’s age or experience. The first segment is scales, the second is etudes, and the third is music such as band music, solos for contest, orchestral excerpts or chamber music.
Scales can be used to work on finger technique, even rhythm, smooth airflow, consistency of embouchure and tongue position (especially over the break) and proper holding and hand position.
Etudes are often more interesting to the student and, depending on the type of etude, they can be used for practicing articulation, combinations of slurring and tonguing, phrasing, legato, rhythmic accuracy, etc.
Music, of course, is the reward for all of this detail work and allows the student to prepare for ensembles and contests; what’s more, our basic repertoire allows us to introduce artistic ideas.
A beginner may have a schedule that allows for twenty to thirty minutes of practice. A scale sheet that contains slow, slurred scales in several forms (returning scale, thirds, chromatic), their band method book and an elementary duet book can be a good combination. Five to ten minutes can be used to practice slurred scales, slowly, with metronome, up and down.
For example, young students may start with C major in half notes. Instruct them to set the metronome to an appropriate tempo, such as quarter note = 60. Direct them to play the scale and its forms while thinking of good tone, proper embouchure and consistent tongue position while slurring—all while paying attention to correct rhythm and the metronome. Demonstrate this in a lesson, and ask them to repeat this every day.
I recommend that the scale be performed slurred so that articulation does not interfere with the “long-tone” quality of a slurred scale. (Of course, the tongue should release the reed at the beginning of the scale.) Remind them that scales are the basic building blocks of music and that repeated practice of scales will put patterns into their muscle memory that will help them learn all other types of music.
The next ten minutes can be devoted to the band method or the elementary method book that the student is using in school. Be sure that each exercise is given a goal tempo for performance by using a metronome, and emphasize that students should try for zero mistakes. We should let our students know that we should try for perfection, and then forgive ourselves when we do not achieve it.
Show them how to use the metronome to guide their practice from a slow, easily obtainable tempo, up to a challenging goal tempo, by gradually moving the tempo faster. And be sure to tell them the purpose of any particular exercise, such as practicing tricky fingering combinations, difficult rhythms, correct articulation and such.
Let your students know what “prepared” really means. Ask them for a clean result, at your assigned tempo, with all articulation marks correctly played, all notes in control, a minimum of squeaks, and with attention to all musical marks on the page. Be sure that, as a teacher, you are aware of why you are assigning an exercise, and then be sure that your students are aware of
Conclude the practice session with music that will be fun to perform. Perhaps they can learn a duet that you or a fellow student can play with them. Or they can practice their parts for an upcoming concert. Apply the same standards to the “fun” music as you would to any other, and reward them with congratulations when they do well. Your opinion of their work is very important to them when they know you have high expectations. Do not underestimate them, and do not feel uncomfortable with expecting them to do well.
Intermediate and advanced students are much the same as beginners, but farther along the time-line of technical and musical advancement. They too must practice a combination of scales, etudes and repertoire. The time allotted for each of these segments of practice simply increases as their interest level and age increases, and the difficulty increases in all areas.
For example, each day, an eighth- or ninth-grade student might spend twenty minutes on scales, ten to fifteen minutes on etudes and fifteen minutes on repertoire. This can vary slightly depending on the needs of the student, such as whether or not a contest is approaching. An older high school student may work thirty minutes on each of these segments of practice, sometimes more. College students may spend up to an hour practicing scales, an hour on etudes and an hour on repertoire, then finish with orchestral excerpts and ensemble music.
Now, then—exactly how does one practice all this?
Whether you are a teacher making assignments or a performer at any level, using a metronome is a great way to indicate at what point you should start practicing, where to stop and how to get there. For example, rather than simply playing scales, practice them in a specific and reasoned way.
An intermediate or advanced student might use a good scale method book that contains all forms of scales in all keys, in sixteenth notes. It is best to practice one key each week (the same set of scales each day for the week) and to practice all forms of a scale in the same key signature, rather than one form of scale in various key signatures. By repeating the key every day, and at different tempos, the keys are placed in the muscle memory—and after all, we read music in key signatures.
Slur the scales so that they become, in effect, long tones over which you move your fingers. Listen for smooth intervals, even rhythm, constant tongue position and accurate and complete control of finger movement.
Control the fingers by using muscular strength, but strength without tension. Fingers that are completely relaxed are difficult to control, as are fingers that are very tense. Do not attempt to keep the fingers too close to the clarinet, but instead lift them in a natural way, keeping the middle knuckle slightly curved.
Begin by deciding on a challenging goal tempo that is slightly beyond your “comfort” tempo, one that you can reach after approximately one week. Also, establish a time period for scale practice, such as thirty minutes per day. (If you are teaching, always decide goal tempo and time period for your student.) Then begin practicing at a much slower tempo, such as quarter note = 60. Play this tempo until the scale (in all of its forms) is clean and under control.
Then move the metronome to quarter note = 66. Repeat what you had just done at 60. Continue to repeat this, continually moving faster—72, 80, 88, 96, 104, 112, 120, 132—until you reach your goal.
Each day begin again at quarter note = 60. Go as far as you can in the thirty minutes. At the end of that time, no matter what tempo you have achieved, stop. Begin the next day again at quarter note = 60, but this time you will achieve a faster tempo in the thirty minutes. As you become more familiar with the scale, you will progress through the slow tempos more easily.
Continue this pattern until you eventually reach your goal tempo. When you achieve this, it is time to move to a new key.
By the time you are finished with your week, you will have an almost automatic response to the key signature and patterns, and when you come across these patterns in other music, they will be much easier to learn. Applying this type of organized practice to all music will help you to learn the technique in your etudes and repertoire much more efficiently and thoroughly. If you learn it well the first time, it will always stay with you.
With answers to the questions of what to practice and how to practice, any performer is able to make better use of his or her time in the practice room and will see greater, more efficient results.
Of course, we all know that practicing is sometimes fun, but sometimes seems to be a chore. As teachers, we know that students often do not make it into the practice room. And as performers, we ourselves can sometimes be reluctant to practice. In order for any of us to be motivated to practice, we must feel that the work will be profitable and that, once we begin, we will enjoy the time we spend.
It is important to tell students (I frequently acknowledge this myself) that they will not always feel like rushing to the practice room. There will be times when it seems as if it would be better to watch TV or chat with friends online. But part of the joy of performance—of doing anything—is doing it well, and this takes a commitment of time and effort. Knowing great things can be accomplished by following these guidelines (and they can), will help to make the job much easier for everyone.
I have often been asked, How do you get your students to practice? My initial answer is that I expect them to. But there is more than that.
It does not take long for students to realize that their practice is producing positive results, and success is the biggest motivation of all. Performers of all ages have no better incentive to practice than being witness to their own progress.