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.

Marching Band: Visually speaking, simple is better

It is DCI Finals Week, which means marching band season for high schools is upon us. While DCI is thrilling to watch, simple is better for most high schools.

My fandom for Drum Corp International is long-established through years of viewership. That and the numerous CDs and t-shirts that litter my collections. Sure, it is not a full as others fans, but I still love watching groups perform.

And, through my years of teaching, opportunities to watch ensembles such as the Cavaliers, Santa Clara Vanguard and Madison Scouts rehearse provided some great insight on how they operate. We sit back in awe as we watch and listen to them perform. Often, we take mental notes on what is witnessed.

In that 10-12 minute span, we see the amazing visuals these students exhibit. Many of us want to bring those aspects to our programs. Our eyes glaze over and grow to twice the size of our “marching stomachs.” We “know” our students can pull off similar visuals, and we want to add them into our shows.

Not so fast my friend…

Yes, those visuals are amazing. But there is some truth we must realize: DCI participates are rehearsing and/or performing daily over the summer. The repetitions on each visual is astronomic compared to the few times per week most high school programs rehearse.

Instead of trying to mimic the awesome moves you see this week, try to do something else. Sure, the visual concepts you see can be applied, but maybe not replicated.

One aspect you can focus on with your ensemble is simple marching fundamentals. Posture. Equipment angle. Uniformity of technique. You know. That part of the judges sheet most of us ignore because we need to get the show on the field. However, fixing the simple techniques will cure many issues.

As I observed rehearsals from various corps, one thing stuck out. Staff regularly commented on the simple visual corrections than any other aspect. Sure, there were discussions on complex movements, but they reminded the performers about the basics constantly. It was reinforcement.

This goes for all parts of the ensemble. Color guard, drum line and front ensembles. Mastering the simple techniques improves overall performance.

Spend significant time daily on the fundamentals. Provide positive feedback when does well, and encouraging criticism as needed.

Keep it simple. Do the simple better. That will change how your student do everything.

The FFFF’s of Band Camp

We have reached the middle of July, and that means band camps are starting around the country. Break out the sunscreen, ear plugs, and Gold Bond! While band camp is crucial to the overall performance success of any ensemble, it is important to remember some fact that lay the foundation during this time.

Fundamentals

Band camp is the time to establish the foundation of musical performance throughout the year. Focus on the fundamentals of playing. Spend time discussing proper air control, embouchure, blending of timbre. These are all things that will lead to successful music making. Additionally, this time allows for directors to set expectations for all members. Students can learn time management skills, teamwork, ways to prepare for the next task, and working until something is complete. All of these are important life skills.

Folks

These kids are people. They have parents, guardians, friends, and responsibilities outside of band. You, in fact, are a person as well. You enjoy Games of Thrones, cooking, and time in the quiet. It is important to remember these things. it provides a great perspective for all of us. At the end of the day, no matter the quality of the rehearsal or what needs to get done tomorrow, everyone involved is a person. Treat them with the respect you with which you wish them to treat you. Lead with energy, drive toward the goal, but be mindful of the people around you. While you do spend a great deal of time together, you may not be aware of everything going on in their lives. Sometimes, they are distracted by an family issue and can only give you 70% of their focus and energy. Encourage them to give all of that 70%. Remember, band rehearsal may be the best part of their day.

Future

This topic goes hand-in-hand with fundamentals. How is each part of camp going to help build for the future of the program? Are the activities designed to generate closer relationships and trust through teamwork? Will the musical warm-up improve the tone quality of the concert band? What challenges will your arrangement provide that will lead to growth in performance?  It is important that you plan band camp with the full school year in mind.

Fun

I know there are many reasons why students are in band. They like the companionship or the competition. But, at the root of all of is they enjoyment of band. Students join beginning band because they believe it will be fun. Sure, it is a lot of work, but there is a sense of enjoyment as well. And, how many band directors truly choose this field because they like to work? No, they enjoy the work they do. Sit back and enjoy the ride.

Band Directing: A Family Affair

Truth: The life of a band director is very similar to that of an athletic coach (because, marching band is a sport, right?). Think about it for a few minutes. Getting a group of students to work together and perform complex techniques. Coordinating band uniform and equipment needs. Daily practices in preparation for a performance. Traveling to band contests and events each week in the fall and throughout the year. Fund raising. Band Recruiting. Film Study. Score study, which is more complex than a playbook at times. Early mornings and late nights. All while you are still practicing your craft and improving as a musician. Believe it or not, being a band director it is not teaching 55-minute classes and leaving at 3pm.

J Corey Francis, Family
Francis Band Family

With this type of schedule, time with the family can be hard to come by. Being a husband and father of two girls, making my family a priority during the year-long schedule of tasks has been difficult, but the reward huge. Here are a few ways to make your job a family affair.

  1. Allow your family to be visible during the year. This can have two major impacts: your family gets to see you do what you love, and your students get to see you in a different way. Let’s be honest. Many of the students that we work with over the years come from families that are broken from divorce, abuse, or parents not being there. Seeing your family and your interaction with them can break down walls and help students build better relationships.
  2. We often take our jobs too seriously. Not sure about you, but I started to play saxophone because I thought it would be fun. I grew up listening to Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, and Paul Desmond with my dad. Never did I think about the work involved, simply the fun. When my girls come by rehearsals, I smile. I relax a bit and remember the fun. This leads to less stress in rehearsal and to a more relaxed and focused ensemble.
  3. Let your family help! I am fortunate to have a great wife that wants to be part of the process. She was in color guard in high school and understands the work involved. She is also a cosmetologist. Perfect! She can help with color guard hair and makeup. Maybe your spouse has abilities and talents that make them perfect for getting involved. If not, they can help serve water in the stands or be responsible for plumes. If they are great at Microsoft Excel, have them help with the databases for inventory or personnel. (NOTE: Each school district may have requirements for spousal help, whether it is background checks, non-payment, or lists of things they can and cannot do. Please, make sure you review those before your spouse helps.)
  4. Step away from the band! Sometimes, you just have to say no to an extra rehearsal. You need to give back time to the band students and to your family. They work hard and give up so much for this activity. The most valuable resource we have is time, and setting aside time to be a family will have a greater impact on you, your family, and your students than that extra rehearsal.