How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
According to the old joke, it’s: practice man, practice. Certainly, practice is central to being a successful musician. Unfortunately, as all music teachers know, the solution is not really that obvious.
A recent article by Robert Rawlins, coordinator of theory at Rowan University, in The LeBlanc Bell led me to consider this all-important question again. The piece by Rawlins is most interesting, and I would encourage teachers of performance groups to read it.
Successful practice techniques must be taught to students; they will not learn how to practice by osmosis. It must be part of teaching students how to play their instrument; it is a most necessary skill. Unfortunately, I see many students simply play through their music from start to finish, seldom actually working on solving any of the technical problems that arise.
The word “play” implies recreation. The word “practice” should instead point to the successful completion of a goal. In this case, the work should lead to improving one’s ability to play his or her own instrument, be it in general terms or in regard to performing a specific piece better. Students will not improve as they should unless they develop strategies to solve these very specific problems.
There is considerable skill in practicing effectively and should be defined by the specific goal that is to be accomplished. Different approaches should be followed depending on the aim. For example, methods should be quite different when working on improving tone quality as opposed to learning difficult passagework. As but one example of the need to develop specific practice strategies, I would like to focus on that which might be used in learning technically difficult passages. As a first step, I will offer the following proposition:
It is difficult to play fast for an extended period of time.
I first heard this axiom, oddly enough, at a New Jersey All-State Band rehearsal in the mid-1980s. Then Rutgers flute teacher, Jim Scott, gave a clinic on how to practice during one of the rehearsals. He began the session with a remark that he had learned a very important principle from a piano teacher earlier in his life: it is difficult to play fast for an extended period of time. To this day, I hold this as the basic concept in learning difficult passagework. Perhaps this truth needs some clarification however.
The terms “fast” and “extended period” are certainly subjective terms and will mean different things to different people. In some cases, a long passage may consist of only four or five notes. In other situations, the passage may be a continuously running segment that is several measures in length. Certainly, a fast tempo is widely different depending on context.
In most ways, these subjective factors are really secondary to the basic point. Pure technical difficulty is almost always caused by one of the two characteristics: speed and duration. (I consider range to be an issue to be approached separately.) Therefore, the axiom dictates the need to adopt one of two different practice strategies.
- Slow the entire passage down.
- Break the passage into smaller segments but keep the tempo fast.
Method 1: Slow It Down
First, the tempo chosen to practice the difficult passage must be carefully selected. The tempo must be slow enough so that the passage can be played absolutely perfectly, without any mistakes, and with relaxation. If tension is created, then the tempo is too fast. Also, the tempo must stay absolutely constant; the use of a metronome is strongly suggested.
The difficult section may need to be repeated a great deal – perhaps hundreds of times – very gradually speeding up the tempo. However, students must not increase the tempo too rapidly as mistakes and tension will creep in. In this case, any gain that might have been made will be lost; the student will actually be practicing and learning mistakes. Almost without exception, students increase tempo too quickly. The need for slow repetition cannot be overstated.
Usually, this process needs to be done over a period of several days or weeks. Even if the passage is learned successfully, there is a strong probability that students will regress after the practice session is concluded. There is a need to re-learn the passage again. Hopefully, this process will proceed much faster and retention will be much better. This principle is supported by considerable psychological research into the working of memory. Over the course of several days, the passage in question should be mastered.
There is not a great deal of creativity needed with this approach. This method requires time, patience, hard work, and self-discipline.
Method 2: Break It Down
Unlike method one, this procedure does require some creativity and analytic skill from the student, and there are many different approaches that can be followed. The basic idea is that certain isolated intervals are problematic and that the entire passage in which these are contained is not particularly difficult as a whole. When the difficult section is short, this approach is the better choice. It is vital that students are able to isolate the problem spot and then practice that small segment.
Here the key is to practice the specific connection in isolation while keeping the tempo rather fast. Sometimes, the segment might be only two notes long. In this case, the notes can be repeated over-and-over, possibly with a rest inserted between the pairs. This method often works well where there are passages that contain many dotted-eighths and sixteenths; the difficulty is in moving from the sixteenth to the next eighth.
By isolating and practicing those two notes alone – one connection – the tricky section might be mastered. Slowing down the entire passage would never address the real issue: the very rapid movement between the sixteenth and eighth.
With long runs, the passage might be broken up into groups of 3 or 5 notes. For example, if a passage consisting of a C-scale proved to be difficult, students might break the pattern into C-D-E, then E-F-G, then G-A-B. Following successful mastery of this, a next step might be to make the pattern a little longer: C-D-E-F-G, then E-F-G-A-B. Finally, the whole scale might be practiced as one unit.
I have used this approach with entire sections from the band or orchestra in situations where rote teaching seemed the best strategy. I have also done this in rehearsal to demonstrate practice techniques. In this situation, the teacher is practicing the passage for the entire group, and demonstrating a practice strategy. This is successful as long as it is not overdone.
Many teachers advocate changing the rhythm of runs to make them deliberately uneven, a repeated pattern of a short note followed by a long note used for the entire passage. This approach is an application of this second method: breaking the passage down into many brief but quick intervals and connections. There are many other possibilities for practical application of this idea.
Putting Both Methods Together: Simplify
When music is difficult, the obvious approach that should be followed is to simplify. By making the excerpt less difficult, the student is able to actually play the passage successfully, gradually adding the complexity back until the original version is mastered – certainly the end goal.
Obviously, the two methods can be combined: slow down short passages. The key here is to isolate those really tricky spots. When the music is truly difficult, the student may only be able to play very short segments at a dramatically slower tempo. By combining both methods, some progress can be made. Ultimately learning the passage may require a very long time.
There are other ways that students can simplify difficult passages. One is to remove the rhythm and just play the section as a series of even notes. This solution might be the obvious choice when the rhythm creates difficulty, but a less obvious application is when the technique is the main difficulty. This lets the student focus on the technical difficulty rather than splitting their attention between both difficult fingerings and rhythms.
Regardless of the specific educational goal, teachers must help students find an appropriate practice strategy. The two approaches discussed above are appropriate for learning technique. For other problems, different guidelines must be followed. Embouchure development, as an example, requires many short practice sessions because of the need to develop muscle memory without becoming fatigued. If students practice too long, old habits will begin to creep in and the new embouchure will quickly disintegrate.
It is up to the teacher to help students find the appropriate method to master the particular skill in question. One must remember that repetition is necessary to learn almost any basic skill or concept. (Remember the sometimes-endless drill required to learn multiplication tables or the names of the notes on the staff). However, students may not know how to drill correctly, especially when trying to learn the physical skills necessary to play a musical instrument.
If students can work on their own —even just a little – conductors can devote more rehearsal time to musical concepts rather than to the constant drilling notes and rhythm. Students can take some responsibility for learning their parts only if they have to skills necessary to do so. This should then make the rehearsal experience more rewarding and fulfilling for both teacher and student.
The Fine Print
Unfortunately, practice is not always fun and can become frustrating. However, being able to practice successfully and efficiently is vital. Using different methods can help to fight boredom. Students can see that mastering isolated sections can show progress more rapidly and therefore help motivation.
So much of our contemporary society is built on instantaneous gain – quick rewards with little effort. Teachers do need to make sure that students understand that a fair amount of effort is required to learn how to play an instrument well. A certain dedication is required that goes beyond simple recreation. To use my earlier parallel, “play” implies recreation and a lack of seriousness. Even for those students who have only a casual interest in music and participate in band and orchestra for social reasons, practice is a vital part of their experience. Individual and group progress will come only reluctantly to those who do not practice with purpose. As is often the case with work, the process may not always be fun, but the end result can be rewarding.
I would encourage teachers to work for providing rewarding experiences rather than seeing recreation as the most important goal. Whether teachers are working for musical or non-musical goals with their students, practice in some shape or form is critical to progress. With successful achievement and good performance, the end result should be a richer experience for all, teacher and student alike.