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Performance and Pedagogy Blog

A blog about the performance and pedagogy of music.

Filtering by Category: Practicing

Getting serious about your routine

Andrew Hitz

This is not a complicated concept and yet can be hard to implement until you get some momentum. If you are serious about improving your playing, you must be practicing the things you can't do well every single day.

The first part of this equation is having the self-awareness to accurately identify the weaknesses in your playing. I don't think I've ever met a player who has no idea what their weaknesses are. But the best players have an acute sense of their shortcomings with a high degree of specificity.

Noticing that soft playing is not a strength is one thing. (And that's a great start!) But digging a few layers deeper (like for example your ascending slurs in the upper middle and upper registers at a soft dynamic are particularly poor) is much better.

The best players can not only identify their shortcomings to that degree of specificity but then develop a plan to meet them head-on in their daily routines. If you are bored with practicing scales, incorporate one of your weaknesses into your daily scale work. This requires creativity and a lot of focus (since playing a new exercise that you just made up takes a lot more work than just playing around the Circle of Fourths again.)

And if you really want to raise the bar, throw a portion of your warmup on Instagram Live. Even if only five people watch for a total of a minute, your focus will be off the charts when you are broadcasting one of your biggest weaknesses to your friends and colleagues.

So ask yourself two questions: what are your biggest shortcomings as a player (be as specific as possible) and how many days in the last week have you worked on them?

If your answer is less than seven, you might want to reevaluate your priorities.

Fundamentals Before Fireworks

Andrew Hitz

Gail Williams is dead on here (as usual!) I have encountered many students over the years who are constantly looking to work on the most difficult excerpts and solo repertoire before putting in the work to be able to play their instrument well.

It takes discipline to play the first page of the Arban's book in multiple octaves every single day while making every note identical to those around them no matter the octave or the dynamic. It is easy to do that kind of work every once in a while. But having the in-the-moment discipline to know that you need to be doing that kind of practicing on a regular basis is what separates the good players from the great players.

As I once heard Joe Alessi say, it takes a lot more work to obtain skills on your horn than it does to maintain skills on your horn. Gail Williams spent an insane number of hours being able to play loudly in all registers with a good sound and a variety of attacks, releases, weights, etc. Everyone who can charge people a good chunk of change to listen to them play their instrument has done that work.

Furthermore, she doesn't have to spend nearly as much time today practicing that stuff. I'm sure she still spends more time than you might believe, but it pales in comparison to when she was first acquiring those skills.

So if you are a young tuba player, rather than jumping into the John Williams Concerto your freshman year, maybe do the sometimes tedious work that your teacher suggests on a regular basis. I promise you will be able to play the John Williams before you know it!

Fundamentals before fireworks!

Bringing Your Own Rhythmic Urgency

Andrew Hitz

"Make sure you can maintain a sense of rhythmic urgency without a metronome going."
—David Zerkel

Practicing with a metronome is essential for any musician serious about playing with great rhythm.

Practicing without a metronome is also essential for any musician serious about playing with great rhythm.

Let me explain...

To improve at anything on your instrument you must enter a feedback loop. That means getting precise data about what is actually coming out of your horn, using that data to try something a little different and then getting more data.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

In this case, that means using a metronome and a recording device to figure out whether you are playing perfectly in time. And if not, noticing the patterns of how or where you are playing with bad rhythm so you can adjust accordingly.

But some players fall into a trap of practicing with a metronome all the time (or darn close to it.) While this might seem like a good idea, it is actually a really bad idea. You never want to come to rely on a tool that won't be present when you are performing or auditioning.

The way to properly use a metronome is to record yourself both with it and without it to see if you can play with great time regardless. It should be used as a reference point, not provide the rhythm for you.

So there are two types of people who can fall into the lack of rhythmic urgency without a metronome trap that David Zerkel alluded to in the above quote, those who never use a metronome and those who use one too much.

Are You Willing or Are You Doing?

Andrew Hitz

"Go for your best sound right at the beginning of every note."
—David Zerkel

Making your best sound right at the beginning of the note is dependent on the immediacy of the air. Students must understand that it's not just the quantity but also the quality of the air that needs to be immediate.

The air of a held note that's not changing dynamics needs to be the exact same at the very beginning of the note as it is a beat later. This is pretty easy to achieve in the middle register at a middle dynamic for a decent player.

The challenge comes from being able to do that in all registers at any dynamic level.

And why are the world's best players able to do that with ease?

Through lots and lots of highly focused repetition.

Joe Alessi wasn't born with the ability to play freakishly soft in any register. He simply worked his ass off. It's really not rocket science.

It is also worth noting that it takes significantly more time and effort to obtain skills than it does to maintain skills. I guarantee you Joe has spent less time in the last calendar year practicing his extreme soft playing that he did when he was first acquiring the skill.

To be clear, I bet he spent an awful lot of time maintaining it in the past year. But the amount of time he spent getting that ability in the first place might make your head spin right off.

It is my experience that all musicians believe they are willing to do that kind of work to be able to play that well. But it's also been experience that the number who "are willing" to do that work is way higher than the number who actually do it.

A Trick to Getting More Musical When Doing Drills

Andrew Hitz

Want to know a trick to instantly be more musical and focused when doing mundane drills or warming up?

Broadcast yourself using Facebook Live, Instagram stories or on YouTube.

No, seriously.

Even if three people are watching you, hell, even if there is only a threat of just three people watching you, you will be incredibly focused.

As anyone who has ever taught knows, it is awfully easy to be fully engaged when performing a drill for a student. And that's just with an audience of one. With social media, you can recreate that phenomenon any time you'd like.

Simply posting a one-minute chunk in the middle of your warm-up will engage your brain and make you much more focused, even after the camera is off.

If you are bored while doing drills or warming up, there are tools at your disposal to remedy that situation. If you don't use any of them and continue to not play at your absolute focused, best, it's on you.

And every one of your heroes on your instrument is always playing at her or his focused best.

Don't Wait Until 1:00 pm

Andrew Hitz

This reminds me of one of my favorite Joe Alessi quotes:

"You’re not winning an audition if your first notes of the day are at 1 pm.”

—Joe Alessi

Same goes for composing. Or doing score study. Or anything else.

Get those feet moving!

Bored With Scales?

Andrew Hitz

Love this quote from fantastic trombone player Will Baker!

If your students (or you!) are bored with their scales, tell them THEY'RE DOING IT WRONG!

With a little practice, anyone can play any scale mf two octaves at a decent clip. That's really not very hard. All it takes it reps.

You know what's not easy and requires not just a lot of reps but a lot of concentration?

  • Playing scales while changing articulation every note (either alternating between two articulations or cycling through three or more)
  • Playing scales ff in the pedal register with a beautiful sound without dragging
  • Playing scales pp in the extreme upper register with a beautiful sound
  • Playing two octave scales while diminuendoing the entire way up from ff to pp and crescendoing all the way down with no two notes the same dynamic level
  • Playing scales in thirds, fourths or any other interval
  • Playing scales in thirds on the way up and fourths on the way down
  • Take any of these suggestions and record yourself playing them and listen for things like an even sound, consistent articulation, truly even crescendos and diminuendos, perfect groove, phrasing, etc

You get the point!

Unless your name is Wynton Marsalis, I'm guessing you can't ascending thirds followed by descending fourths for the first time and have it mastered in all twelve keys within five minutes.

So if you or your students are bored with scales, you are experiencing a failure of creativity!

Get more creative and you will suddenly be reengaged while practicing the vital musical building blocks we call scales.

Finding the Sweet Spot When Practicing

Andrew Hitz

"Lack of focus when practicing comes from one of two things: boredom or frustration."
—Lance LaDuke

If you are bored, raise your standards. That side of the equation is very straightforward (although not always easy!)

If you are frustrated, break the passage down to its individual parts (fingers, ear, rhythms, range, dynamics, etc) and figure out exactly what requires attention.

If a passage is in the upper register, it may appear that range is the reason you are missing a lot of notes. But if your fingers are close but not exactly correct, you will continue to miss those notes until you clean up the fingers.

So continuing to hang out in your extreme high register with sloppy fingers will not only not fix the problem, it will tire you and only reinforce the bad fingers leading to even more work later on.

There is a sweet spot that lies between boredom and frustration. The best players in the world are also the best practicers. They have found a way to hang out in between the boredom and frustration and get more done in less time than those who don't.

More done in the practice room in less time? Sign me up!