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Woodwind Performance: Practice Routines

Mike Lawson • Performance • October 17, 2013

Developing a sustainable practice routine

No matter if they are students, educators, or professionals, today’s musicians need to strive for quality of practice. Developing a sustainable routine is really a lifelong process. While young people can function off desire and youthful animal energy, in the long run, the creative person needs to find a way to maintain a level of interest and vitality in the art. This takes work and intelligence.

The concept of daily practice is an important one, as it is the best way to make any kind of musical progress. Daily effort keeps players finely attuned to continuous movement and the incremental accumulation of progress. Practicing sporadically causes you to lose the thread of your practice and is thus much less effective.

Through diligent, consistent daily work, a tangible musical substance is developed. First of all, it is helpful to develop physical stamina through the repeated effort. Also, from day to day, students will accumulate ideas and expand on the themes of their practice. On a topic like working major chords, the first day might be devoted to arpeggios and the next day might be spent finding some connections to other musical sources or songs. By continuing to focus on the same things from day to day, students will find their level of proficiency rising and expanding to include all of these other sources. Practicing every day results in the acquisition of technique, musical intelligence, improved tone, and stamina. The quest to continuously find something to practice, in itself, will increase a musician’s creativity.

There are so many variations of scales, melodies, and melodic patterns. The only real limitations are determined by focus and creativity. For example: let’s say that one of your students has adequately practiced on the horn and is looking for something else to work on. That student could sit down at the piano and transcribe a song, maybe learn a song by ear that he or she may have previously learned by rote. This is one of the most beneficial exercises students can do: ear training through learning songs, listening to other players, and hearing bass lines or melodies. Once the student has spent a few hours and learned a tune the way it’s supposed to be played inside and out, he or she has also achieved a great organizational mind skills study, too.

However, be careful that students don’t overload – otherwise nothing sticks. Learning capacity will increase gradually. It’s amazing how connections are made – they seem to occur somewhere beyond the conscious ability to plan and organize.

Daily practice also allows me to imprint the material in my mind until it becomes instinct. One long practice session will not do this. For most players, useful techniques can only be acquired through repetition. I always try to work new materials into songs, lines, and grooves that I like. For me it’s sort of like upgrading my musical mind so that my playing becomes reoriented in the directions I choose. Increasing familiarity with the materials is a good thing. It’s like learning a language – music is a language.

Go Long

Long tones should be the most important part of your practice routine. This fact is surprising to many beginner or intermediate saxophonists. Why go long? Every saxophonist, clarinetist, flute, oboe, and bassoon player needs to work on this, because long tones help develop muscles and skills that are extremely important in most playing situations.

If the embouchure is correct throughout all of the long tones, then the students will feel the burn as they reach the high notes. Make sure to really squeeze the corners in the high notes, and do not bite. If they feel soreness, have them stop and rest for a little while, and then continue when they feel ready.

By playing long tones, players become subconsciously aware of the overtones and can develop a finer tone quality.

How to Practice

Long tones should be practiced the following way:

1. Set a metronome to 60 beats per minute.

2. Begin with low BH and play this note at a piano volume for 10 beats.

3. Go up chromatically and play each note in the range of the instrument. With correct lower lip and breath support, as well as well-developed control of the muscles involved, students should be able to keep the intonation even.

4. Be conscious of tone quality, intonation, breath support, and embouchure.

5. Use a mirror to check embouchure. Long tones must be practiced for about 15 minutes at a time. In the first session, start at low BH and ascend to the highest note that can be played correctly. In the second session, start at the highest note that can be played correctly, and descend to low BH. Practice long tones as much as possible.

The 7-Day Plan

This will help your students maintain woodwind focus. It’s easy. Each day of the week, choose one subject and work on it intensively. Focus on areas of weakness. Write down realistic plans to meet goals. This will develop a focus on the goals that students are aiming to meet. A typical week might look something like this:

MONDAY: Just play. Letting go, feeling your way up and down the instrument, checking out the sound. Have fun and listen to your strong points. This usually starts out being abstract and works its way into more melodic playing. Doing this for extended periods of time gives us plenty of time to really get the idea of the exercise. Write down notes to yourself about what you want to work on that week. During the week, approach your ideas one by one.

TUESDAY: Melodic playing. Start to put two or more notes together that sound pretty. Take a look at a book of songs, and notice how some of the great tunes are made up of simple intervals. Some of them are short scale passages. This gives us a clue that it does not take much to write or play a good melody. Write at least one idea down a day, as that will help to think melodically and will add more substance to any style.

WEDNESDAY: Quality over quantity. What do you feel you need to make stronger? Take today and study it. Make friends with the area of playing that needs more focus. As the thirst to improve grows, add this Wednesday topic to other days. Practice scales, licks, and study other players’ styles on CDs and recordings.

THURSDAY: New melodies and new chords. This day, we take some of the melodies created on Tuesday and put them together. Don’t judge new pieces but keep trying until you find something you like. Remember you have all day to come up with something that makes you feel good. If you write two bars you are a big winner. Also, try to take the new chords and use them in some of the tunes you know. Or make up your own progressions with them. You are being creative this day. Be yourself, not someone you read about.

FRIDAY: Listen to music, new and old. Get inspired and make notes of the players’ style, how they phrase, keep time, how they let space and silence become part of their solos. Can you remember a few ideas that you can play? Be eclectic! Listen to rock, jazz, classical, or world music. Be inspired this day. It’s your day!

SATURDAY: What caught your musical ear? Was there something this week that made you think differently? This is the day to investigate further and go deeper into that. Try to understand what moves you. If it caught your fancy, stick with it until it reveals itself to you. This day may change your life! Document this feeling you have. It is important for your future.

SUNDAY: In your mind, think about the week of practice. Review things slowly – listen for improvements. Remember, intuition is your very best friend. Listen to it and be ready to act on it. If it sounds good, remember how you worked and focused on it to get it to that point.  

Students should be encouraged to arrange the seven-day plan in a way that suits their needs. It should also be flexible enough to add subjects that they love, or new directions from time to time. Encourage them to go slowly, enjoy the journey, and grow within their own ideas. While it helps to have a plan for the week, keep it loose, so it can grow along with the player’s skill. It will take a certain amount of pressure off and allow students to relax as they practice. By having focus today, they will be closer to their goals tomorrow.

Tim Price is a professional musician, clinician, educator, author, and recording artist. In addition to running a private studio, he has taught students from Tokyo to Texas and Tel-Aviv using online instruction via Skype. Also an in-demand educator at the New School University and New York Jazz Workshops, as well as one of the innovators of jazz bassoon, Price is a Conn-Selmer clinician and Rico Reeds artist. Contact him at www.timpricejazz.com.

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