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.

6 Things You Learn in Music Class

For years the debate has raged on regarding the need for schools to focus on academics areas, such as math and science, over classes in the arts. While I do understand the need to improve in areas of deficiency (and am not diminishing their importance), the lessons learned in band and choir (I was never in orchestra in high school, but I am certain these lessons were taught) have been more valuable in my daily life.

Photo Credit Sandy King
Photo Credit Sandy King

Strong Work Ethic: Music, when done well, requires hard work. Practicing on one short phrase or section could be required in order for the “correct answer” to be achieved.

These Is Not Always a “Correct Answer”: Speaking of “correct answer,” these are often a subjective matter in music class, and rarely are they answer replicated or achieved in the same manner.

No “I” in Team: Music demands a team effort. The performance of the whole ensemble depends on the efforts of all members. You have to work together, pay attention, adjust what you are doing to coordinate with others, and share the credit. In other classes, your grade does not effect my grade (for better or worse).

Diversity is Celebrated: In music classes, there are soprano, altos, tenors, and basses. There are flutes, saxophones, percussion, French horns, English horns, trumpets, cellos, viola……you get the idea. It is a community of instruments or voices, all performing different parts, at the same time and place. Oh, and people from all demographics can participate.

Being the Best is Challenging: In music, if you want to be good, you have to work hard. Once you are good, you can be on first part. You can audition for All-District or other Honor Bands. If you keep working, you can be first chair. You can participate in All-State, Solo and Ensemble, or audition for a competition. But then, there is probably someone else that is working just as hard and wants to be just as good. It is much like a career: work hard to be effective, do well and get promoted but earn more work.

Music is science, mathematics, and history: Let’s not forget this. Music requires understanding of creating waves and manipulating them in time and space. It is knowing fractions, division, multiplication, addition and being able to calculate this vast formulate over a specific time frame. And, music is about knowing cultures and historic events, and being able communicate them through use of science and math…….with a group of others that understand science and math.

Less conversation, more action

It may be late in the year, but there are still many things to learn and work on. Everything that happens in April and May not only finishes the growth and success for the year, but sets the ensemble up for the future. It is also a great time of the year to grow as conductors. One of the main problems many directors face (as I did and still do) is talking too much and not allowing the students to play. We spend a large amount of time trying to explain every last detail of what we hear and how to improve that we use more time than it takes to be successful. Here are some ways to say more while talking less.

Use of facial expression

The face is the most telling and expressive features of the human body; however, many music educators suffer from “Thinking Conductor Face.” This is the default express that we as conductors have while intently listening to our ensemble and assessing their performance. The problem is this expression shows nothing or looks displeased. The expression in your face will effect how the ensemble performs, for better or worse. If your ensemble plays timidly or with a great deal of tension, the problem may be their interpretation of your facial expression. A simple smile of approval when the trumpets articulate the correct way or a raised eyebrow for the saxophone that forgot that to play F-natural can go a long way. These expressions, or the thousands of others, are great ways to provide feedback and students will have a better chance of remembering how to play those areas.

Try this. Take 5 emotions (happy, sad, surprise, fearful, triumphant, etc.) and the 5 vowels in the alphabet (a, e, i, o, u). Each emotion and vowel have a different facial formation. Start by looking in the mirror a saying the vowels. Do this slowly in order to see and feel the difference in the mouth shape for each vowel. Then, apply each vowel to your chosen emotions (i.e. happy-a, happy-e, happy-i, happy-o, happy-u). Notice that each expression shows the emotion in a different way. By implementing these into your conducting while in rehearsal, you will notice some subtle changes in your students’ performance and attitude.

Photo Credit Sandy King
Photo Credit Sandy King

Minimizing feedback

I am guilty of over-explaining things. It has always been a struggle for me to say what is needed in a brief way. And, sometimes, there are 3 or 4 things that need to be mentioned when stopping the ensemble and provide instruction. Come up with a routine to help manage time of instructional talk and provide more time to performing. Any time you stop the ensemble, try giving two statements of feedback: a praise and a correction. It may sound like this:

“Flutes and clarinets, I really appreciate the blended sound you played with in measures 159-166. Nicely done. Low Brass, to my ears up here, you are playing too peasante. Try to not be so forceful, especially in measure 163.”

Play, stop, say something positive and a correction, and we move on. If you didn’t address it that time, be sure to make eye contact with the performers during the next run-though and show them show you want that part played. Also, limit time working with one section or one group performing the same thing over and over to 5 times. By then, another section is losing focus and we start wasting rehearsal time.

Using musical vocabulary

This one is pretty straightforward. Too often, we use non-musical words in the place of true musical vocabulary (play lighter/shorter for staccato for example). Be sure to incorporate musical terms in your instruction as this will reinforce your students’ knowledge and execution of their parts. If you do not know the definition, look it up before rehearsal and write it down on a note pad next to your stand. Additionally, using the truest definition is ideal. For example, the term “forte” is translates from Italian to English as “strong” instead of loud. I prefer using this definition as it seems to help students (especially low brass) to manage their air support and not overplay the volume of the ensemble.

Video taping yourself

This is one of the most difficult things do to as no one really wants to watch themselves on video. However, this exercise is very enlightening. You will start to see patterns of speaking and movement that you did not realize before. For me, I looked down at the score right before my downbeat to start a section. This broke lines of communication and lead to my ensemble not starting together. I also said “okay” quite a bit. Through videotaping myself, I was able to watch improvement in myself and my students. I noticed less talking between times we played, entrances were together, and my conducting patterns were more clear.

Practicing your way to a successful season…..and year

How many times have you attended a marching band performance (whether it was a contest or a football game) then said “I wonder why they are always so good?” Or maybe it was something similar to that, but you were awestruck and wished your group performed that way. We often justify it by the amount we assume is in their budget, or the number of staff members they have, or the amount of hours they must work on their show music starting in March. What if I told you the answer is simple and, yet, we overlook it every day. It is the way we approach practice.

J Corey Francis at Evans High School Marching Band camp, 2004

(Go ahead, insert Allen Iverson’s voice here……”Not a game.  Not a GAME! We talkin’ ‘bout…..practice.)

Okay, call it rehearsal if you wish, but the idea is the same. The way we approach our rehearsal time is not structured toward success.  The Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970’s were one of the dominant teams in NFL history, making it to eight straight playoffs and winning 4 of 6 Super Bowls. How? I believe the answer is explained best by Coach Chuck Noll when he said, “We are going to do the simple things better than everybody else.” Or at least, that is how Tony Dungy said it in his book “Quiet Courage.”  Think about it. Doing the things that everyone else does (for example, roll steps, drop spins, diddle strokes, etc.) the best you possibly can will set you apart. That has been the philosophy of many of the most successful people ever. Steph Curry, Tom Brady, and Jordan Spieth have all been featured in Under Armour commercials showing them performing basic exercises and repeating the phrase “day in, day out.” And, didn’t your private instructors in college encourage the same idea for our DAILY individual practice?

I get it. We are so concerned about getting the show on the field and performing that we skip over what is needed to get other things done. Yet, we will comment on poor execution of technique more than anything else during rehearsals. Everything we ask our students to do in the drill goes directly to what we set them up for in fundamental techniques. In order to “do the simple things better,” we must work on them daily. Or, as one of my favorite teachers would tell me, “Constant contact with the subject matter brings about true knowledge.”

Make time for fundamentals, daily: Our time in rehearsals can be brief and we therefore prioritize the performance over the practical. Because of this, many ensembles will skip doing diligent work on marching and music fundamentals. The time spent on fundamentals is important. For every 2 hours in rehearsal, at least 45 minutes should be spent in marching and music fundamentals. This time of rehearsal will not only reinforce the proper techniques, but also serves as a mental transition from other classes to ensemble performance.

Find a way to make your ensemble smaller: What? Do we not want as many students to participate as possible? Of course we do, but we also can provide more individual instruction to smaller groups. Train your student leaders on how to perform and instruct marching fundamentals. Then, your leaders can teach their sections or small groups. I have found that dividing my ensembles into sections, by woodwind/brass (for example), and allowing leaders to instruct not only gives your students more ownership, it also gives more individual attention to each student.

Be creative in your exercises: Doing 8’s and 8’s down the field gets mundane, yet the focus on step sizes, posture, horn angles, and roll steps are crucial. Finding new ways to teach the same things can be a fun way to keep the focus and energy up in your ensemble. The video series Dynamic Marching, created by Jeff Young at Carmel High School, has some fantastic routines for teaching fundamentals. Also, they provide a way for your ensemble to receive more individual attention by performing the exercises one line at a time. I highly encourage investing in these videos.

Sound sound concepts: Let’s face it. The sound of the ensemble should be a priority all year long. The way you approach the marching ensemble sound should be exactly the same way that you teach concert ensemble concepts. Air is crucial, and you can work on simple air exercises while performing marching fundamentals. Additionally, using idiomatic exercise for each instrument should be encouraged daily. This can include scales and octave/register slurs for woodwinds, lip slurs of various difficulties for brass, and various rolls in duple and triple for percussion.

More fundamentals means less drill: Yes, if you spend more time on fundamentals there will be less time available for actual show work. Making your rehearsals more efficient is a necessity and finding a flow can help learning. For me, I prefer this method:

  • Ensemble learns or performs a segment of drill and freeze, percussion and guard always perform music/routine.
  • I simply say “Check” (silently look around your part of the field and assess), wait 5 seconds
  • “Fix” (address the problems and fix, quietly). During this time, I will allow leaders to make some simple comments in order to help adjust forms
  • “Staff” (staff gets 10 seconds to make comments to their area)
  • “Tower” (I get 15 seconds to make a praise and a correction)
  • “Reverse” (turn around and do the move again, which encourages path and step size repetition)
  • Repeat process. (Forward, back, forward, back)
  • After second performance in “reverse” have ensemble stand still and play music
  • “Forward, full out” (all members perform all parts)

What I like about this routine is that it defines the process and how many times we as directors have students perform a certain segment. (Less saying “one more time!”) It also saves times, keeping the pace of the rehearsal consistent and leading toward progress. At the end of the rehearsal, I always leave time for at least one full run of the show.

Yes, we are talking about practice, Mr. Iverson. Practices are important, but how we practice is crucial. As my friend Troy Bennefield would always say, “Performance = Practice – Distraction.” Better, more effective practices lead to better performances and growth. This will set the standard for your ensemble daily, monthly, and yearly.