Five ways to improve individual practice

Finding individual practice time is crucial to any musician, thus making the most of your time is important. Here are five ways to improve practice time.

If you are a musician, you know the importance of individual practice time. If you are in school, your ensemble leader or private instructor likely nags you about finding more time in the practice room. It can be hard to find enough time, therefore making the most of the time you have crucial.

The way you practice matters as much as the amount of time. Maybe more. And there is not “one-size fits all” method. Many of us make similar mistakes which impedes progress in our performance. Playing a piece from beginning to end, for example, each and every time does little to correct the issue found in measure 52. Doing the same thing over and over again expecting difference results is said to be the definition of insanity. I don’t know about you, but not making progress in my practice is rather frustration.

As the school year enters its final months, here are five ways to improve your individual practice time.

Better Practice Time

1. Make a plan: Before you begin, create a plan. Layout the music you are working in front of you and figure out what passages need the most work. Write down what the biggest concern is, including why. For example, “the second beat in measure 52 includes four sixteenth notes and crosses the break.” Knowing the what and why will bring focus.

2. Go slow: Just because the tempo says  Allegro does not mean you have to work on it at that speed. Repetitive, slow practice builds technique and memory. Set the metronome between 60 and 72 and play everything slowly. You will soon find where your tempo fluctuates. Slow works cures  all.

3. Create a routine: Having a set routine improves focus. Start your time with some breathing exercises or even meditation. Then, spend time warming up and on technical etudes. Establishing  routine can lead to better practice times.

4. Record yourself: We listen to recordings of others and wish to sound like them. But, when was the last time your listened to yourself? For most of us, the only time you hear yourself play is when you are practicing by yourself. Recording to yourself and listening to that recording provides a medium for assessing your tone, rhythm, pitch, and musicality. Take the time to listen to yourself play.

5. Reflect: At the end of the day, reflect back on your time. Write down your thoughts on what went well and things which could have been better. Think over every part of your practice and compliment yourself on improving. Sometimes, the only compliment will be “good job for practicing today,” because our practicing was rough. No matter what, end your reflection with a positive thought.

Try these items over the next few weeks. The results will not be immediate, but you will find your practice time more enjoyable.

Rehearsal with your ensemble with a plan in mind

Each rehearsal provides an opportunity for your ensemble to improve. To make rehearsal more effect, each activity must have a purpose.

Rehearsal. They can be the highlight of our day or leave us dreading the next day. It is the time which we get to do what we love the most: teach music. However, with all the distractions – paperwork needing to be done, meetings with the administration about budgets, planning for a trip – we can often find ourselves “winging it” when it comes time to rehearse. We throw things together and pray it works.

Sometimes, we get lucky and the rehearsal goes well. Other times, not so much.

There is a problem with rehearsals. It often lacks a “why.” We all have the ultimate goal of improving whatever piece of music that happens to be in the folder. The music becomes the focus. A worthy goal, but is it enough?

Certainly, we all have a plan – a routine – in which we incorporate every rehearsal. It may include scales, long tones, chorales and the like. What is the purpose of these activities?

Understand the “why”

Everything we do in a rehearsal must have a purpose, and the students need to understand why it is worth doing. The “warm-up” needs to be part of the overall plan for the day and the year. Each piece performed should lead to meeting the plans you have for your students over the years you will teach them.

When planning a rehearsal, I often think about my work during individual practice. You know, all those hours we were told to work in a practice room in college.

  1. Breathing/Stretching: preparing the body and calming the mind to focus. Give the students a chance to clear their mind of the math test they just finished.
  2. Long tones: This is not just to warm-up the instrument, but a chance to build the best tone quality possible. Simply playing through a few notes without assess the sounds being produced does nothing to help you play the compositions in the folder.
  3. Technical exercises: This does not have to scale, but there should be something to help get the fingers moving. If you have to perform a piece with 16th note passages for any of your players, find a way to work on and teach how to achieve success. START SLOW and WORK WITH A METRONOME! But, teach your students how to practice.
  4. Sight-reading: How often do we practice sight reading? For some groups, it can feel like every day if your students don’t practice at home. But there is extreme value in sight reading: it provides fresh chances for your student to process unknown music, which leads to quicker reading and understanding on concert repertoire.
  5. Now, the music. Be focused, and assess based on the things introduced in previous activities. If students are not playing with the tone quality standard set, (kindly) remind and encourage them to meet that standard. Treat the technical passages in the music like practiced previously. Make the connection from “warm-up” to music.

It sounds simple and maybe you do this every day. I encourage you to keep asking “why” you are doing each activity. And make sure your students know it as well.

Indoor activity is changing marching band show design

Change can be a good thing. The creativity used in designing indoor guard and percussion shows has made its way onto the marching field.

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” Thus states Albert Einstein. Our thinking changes through experience, reading, and observation. Sometimes, changes are forced upon us due to circumstances. Or, change can just be a natural procession.

Over the last decade, marching band has witnessed significant changes in terms of design. While many directors will never fully embrace these new concepts, adopting a few would be wise. I certainly fall into the group which does not like all the new concepts.

What is causing all the changes? It is rather simple: indoor guard and percussion. Ensembles involved in Winter Guard International and other circuits are finding new ways to create drama and use all the design elements to generate effect. With their limited space on a basketball court, it becomes important to think outside the box in order to communicate your show to the audience.

The indoor activity has become theatrical. I do not use the term as an insult, though some people do. The ensembles are pulling ideas from the stage to build interesting and emotional performances. Props, costuming, blocking and staging, casting for characters. These ideas and more are being used inside.

And now, they are coming outdoors.

Marching bands are starting to draw more design concepts from the indoor activity. Sure, Bands of America has been around since 1975, but the progression of the activity is largely due to what happens indoors. The question is which of these changes should be incorporated into your program. Not all of the concepts are adaptable to every program. Nor are they cost effective.

Here are a few concepts I recommend incorporating.

  1. Tell a story: Music music and visual, tell a story. All parts need to work toward the drama production, from the music to the flags to the drill. Make your marching band a bit more theatrical.
  2. Useful props: Many groups incorporate props into their shows, but finding a way to make them integral into parts of your program is needed. Use them as platforms for a soloist, or an interactive piece that changes with your show.
  3. Levels of the body: By changing the height of body positions can add visual tension or impact to the music. This can be accomplished by laying down, squatting, or leaning.
  4. Staging: How you place your ensemble on the performance field is crucial. If the trumpet section is performing the most important content, they must be highlighted on the field. This could be by placing them in the center of the field in full view of the audience, or by grouping them together in a tight form off to the side while others move around them.Gone are the days of isolating the on-field percussion and guard/auxiliaries.  All parts of the ensemble can and should be mixed in the formations on the field.
  5. Casting of Characters: This one can be a challenge, but it just as necessary. Too many times I have witnessed ensembles trying to portray a character but the actors or actresses fall very short through their actions. If you are going to perform a show about James Bond, the actions on the field must fully evoke that image. Posture should be tall and elegant, and motions should be quick and exaggerated. Simply wearing a costume and moving around the field is not enough.

What about other ideas?

Good question. For me, they are optional or not needed.

Electronics are great for adding effects and percussion colors to your program, but amplifying top-performers in your ensemble to help your overall ensemble sound is over the top.

Getting new uniforms and costumes every single year is expensive. Not every marching band can afford such things.

Tarps can add great impact to your show, but can also be an obstacle in which performers lose footing and trip over. Or, it can be blown by the winds of Central Illinois on a brisk October afternoon.

The most important part of all this is doing what works for your marching band. If you can afford new uniforms, get them. Maybe start with the staging and story-telling concepts. Add as you move along. But the days of three tunes and one are in the review mirror.

 

Marching Band: Three words we dread hearing

Three simple words. A short phrase we hear all the time in marching band. We hate it, especially when it is the one last time.

October is done. The marching band season is drawing to an end for many participants across the nation. Sure, there are still some contests and games left, but for all intents and purposes, the season is coming to a close.

For me, marching in high school and college were some of the best memories I have. The trips to and from other schools, spending time with my friends. These people were family to me, and I them. It has been 21 years since I marched my last time in high school. Seventeen years since my last game in college.

The memories. The “OId School” saxophone section from Racer Band. Riding through Washington D.C. on Inauguration night seeing all the parties that were going on. Even after the bus broke down a few time on the way. Singing “Hello, may name is Joe” to keep warm before the 1993 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The Criss-cross block during the Fiery Latin Cooker right before booking it to the track.

But, it was the people – getting to know people, work together, and complete a performance – that mattered.

The worse part of marching band? One phrase: One more time.

How many times did we hear our directors say it in a rehearsal? And, after they would say it, we would perform the task only to hear the phrase again. “One more time” became the annoying statement lacking truth. I can still hear and feel the frustration rise up simply typing the words.

There was never just one more time.
Until it is the last time.

As you march your final steps this year or ever, smile. You are doing something amazing. Together with your band – your friends, directors, parents, boosters, community – you are performing something that will never be done again. That moment, with those people, will never be replicated.

You may remember the trophies, or even the scores. But you will never forget the people. Your mind will recall the music and the routine. It does for me and my wife. Nothing draws the memories like the song “25 or 6 to 4” by Chicago for her. As for me, my mind thinks about marching band all the time, but then it has been my life’s passion. But the people are what will matter.

So, as you take the field for the last time, whether it is this weekend or after a bowl game, smile. Look around at the people on the field and smile. Give them a high-five. The next 10 minutes, you get the honor to perform with them….

…..one more time.

Marching Band: Visual Effect a concern? Think musically!

Visual effect can be a challenging area for many marching band directors. However, instead of thinking in visual terms, think musical.

It is marching band contest season. Each weekend, bands from across the United States will travel to events in which they will be adjudicated on several different areas. Music performance, music effect, visual performance, and visual effect are the most common, though many contests feature judges for color guard and percussion.

Of those areas, several are straight forward. How is your ensemble’s sound production? Are they generating a quality sound and articulating in a stylistic manner? Is the drill performed clean, or are there some concerns? Does the ensemble create emotion through dynamic changes, energy through articulation?

However, visual effect is rather confusing at times. The adjudicator is watching for how the drill flows and how the ensemble performs each task. With terms like phrasing, continuity, and emotion included on the rubric, it is better to think musically when considering visual impact.

Think Musically

This weekend, I was able to serve as the visual effect adjudicator for a festival in Kentucky. It was a great day and each ensemble performed really well. Especially since it is still rather early in the season. As I went through the day, I found that many groups experience similar issues in this caption. Of course, many music educators are not visual designers. But, they can think musically about visual aspects.

When discussing music being performed, directors will often mention phrasing. We ask performers to connect one section of music to another, avoid breathing at a bar-line, and add musical inflection. The same can be stated about visual.

With visual phrasing, we are asking performers to connect one move to the next. Make a 16-count move and another 16-count move flow together. This can be rather challenging, especially because we more one move at a time so often. But, in order to connect the moves organically, performers must move in unison, with similar foot speed and step size. Those things we discuss. Often. What if we talked about them in musical terms?

Rushing feet before a visual transition is the same as getting to a downbeat too early.

Getting to a hold too soon is like releasing a note before the music calls for it. Or, moving after a hold is the same as a late release.

A form that is not controlled from one set to the next is similar to players being out of tune.

Color guard should perform with great extension, just like you ask wind players to use air support, or you get poor tone quality.

related read: Overwriting for color guard

Take the time to think musically about your visual package. The visual must match the music. When there are moments of tension or crescendo in the music, the visual should also generate tension. When you match the two areas together, your performances will reach new levels.