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Performance and Pedagogy Blog

A blog about the performance and pedagogy of music.

Filtering by Tag: Practicing Tips

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!

You Can't Break a Bad Habit

Andrew Hitz

This is precisely why it is so important to not rush through things and learn them the wrong way when practicing. The key word in the last sentence of the above Arnold Jacobs quote is gradually.

Once you have established a habit, the only way to replace it with a new one is gradually over time. Translation: it's a lot of work.

I was also always taught that the brain does not respond well to the word don't. If you write something like "Don't Drag" in your music then your brain first comprehends "Drag" which is not exactly ideal. I always have my students write the positive version of whatever they're working on so "Don't Drag" becomes "Groove" or "Steady Tempo".

Ideally, we don't ever learn something wrong in the first place because the extra time we take to learn something with slow and deliberate practice will be more than saved by not having to relearn it the right way. But if we do, rather than focusing on not doing it wrong, we need to replace it with the correct version and then have the patience to see the entire process through which will take a while no matter what we do.

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!

Become An Elite Problem Solver

Andrew Hitz

I was listening to the Unemployable Podcast hosted by Brian Clark the other day and heard a great interview with Tim Ferris. Tim is the author of The 4-Hour Work Week and a number of other books and is one of the elite thinkers in the world today.

He said something that had nothing to do with music but that really got me thinking about practicing. He mentioned the importance of becoming an elite problem solver.

I immediately thought about the practice room. And I thought about how any of us who are really good at practicing (you do anything for over three decades and you're bound to get pretty good at it!) had to learn how to practice.

And when you break it down, all practicing is is targeted problem solving.

Being an elite problem solver in any field first involves identifying exactly what problem needs solving, then systematically trying various methods until the problem is solved.

Rather than having the overall goal of "getting better at the trumpet", perhaps instead have a goal of "getting better at problem solving" in the practice room. This 30,000 foot goal will help anyone to get better at specifically targeting exactly what it is in their playing that needs improvement.

The greatest players in the world on your instrument are, to a woman and a man, elite problem solvers in the practice room.