Practice Makes Pleasure

This website is about our journeys with music, and for Adam and myself, practice has been the biggest part of that journey.  It is always interesting to assess your current relationship with practice.  For me, how well I am practicing often coincides with how good I feel about everything else in my life.  I’ve also used practicing as a way to pull myself out of a funk.  Whatever the quality of my practice at any given point in time, one thing is for sure: my relationship with practice always reflects where my head is.

I have often heard musicians talk about the relationship between themselves and their instrument.  There is definitely a bond between a musician and her equipment, and this relationship is one where the musician understands how their instrument works, acknowledges its individual quirks, and learns how to act upon it to produce a particular set of sounds.  

My history with practicing is probably familiar to many of you.  When I was young, I loved to practice.  It didn’t feel like an obligation; practicing was something in which I took great pleasure.  This lasted until sometime when I was in school studying music.  Gradually, practice became an obligation that I had to fulfill in order to get to the fun stuff – performing.  

As practice took on a new identity in my life – that of “homework,” essentially – I began to dread it rather than look forward to it.  When we had vacations from school, I would so look forward to a break from my horn.  I resented being tied down to my instrument if I wanted to stay “in shape.”  However, I noticed that after a few weeks, I would always take it out of the case and play for fun.  When given space from it, I ultimately couldn’t stay away.  

Over the years I matured somewhat as a person and accepted these circumstances. I realized that if I wanted to be able to play the horn whenever I wanted with the kind of freedom I desired, then I was obligated to pay a regular penance of time spent playing fundamentals on my instrument.  This was necessary not only to stay in shape, but also in order to truly know my instrument.  

I also recognized that I had a dysfunctional relationship with practice, and decided that it would be to my benefit to improve upon it.

When I was younger, I played whatever music was put in front of me. I never had to choose music – teachers and band directors did it for me. In college and grad school, I might have chosen some of the solos I played, but etudes were assigned and treated (by me) as a chore.  In fact, I remember telling my teacher Gail once, “I just hate playing etudes.  It’s like the seventh level of hell!”  Gail said, “Well that explains your lessons lately.”  Haha!  I love telling that story – it reminds me of the true honesty that is often required of a teacher!

At the point in my life that I turned my mind to improving the quality of my practice, I had no idea where to start.  What I did have was a large stack of etude books I had purchased over the years, many of which had sat untouched for a decade or more. So I decided to start where we always start: sight-reading.

If you don’t take anything else of value from this blog post, I hope that this one thing will stick with you:

Sight-read etudes regularly.  

Nothing has improved my playing as rapidly as sight-reading etudes on a regular basis.  There is an endless list of benefits to this one commitment; here are a few that I found most impactful:

 - Overcome fear of sight reading

 - Learn to absorb music much more quickly

 - Become much more confident and intuitive with phrasing

Probably the best benefit of adding this element to my practice sessions was the presence of SO MUCH MORE music in my life.  Since I started sight-reading etudes with regularity, my day is filled with easily two or three times more music! As I sight-read through an etude book, I would make notes: the date, any preferable alternate fingerings, tempo thoughts, etc.  I would also make a note about the etude itself.  Did I think it was exciting?  Pretty?  Challenging key?  Needs slower work?

When I finish an etude book, I will go back and practice the pieces that I noted as fun / pretty / needing work, and I work on these in no particular order.  This element of being able to choose what I practice on the spot is another thing about etude study that keeps practicing fresh for me.  

I’ve now finished at least six etude books.  It’s slow going, especially if you turn back and really learn the ones that you like.  However, for me, that’s the big pay off: more pieces of music that I like to and can play.

After undertaking this project five years ago, I started to notice effective patterns in my practice.  I started to actively look for efficient ways of approaching a fresh piece of music.  Through trial and error, I developed together a four-step practice method.

We often present on this method to middle and high school students when Adam and I work with music programs.  It’s so simple, even a sixth grader can apply it!

STEP 1: Sight-read – When sight-reading, I first make myself a promise to read the piece from beginning to end on the first time through.  If you get derailed and have to take a second to get back on, no worries!  Also on this first time though, I don’t pay much attention to dynamics or accidentals, only notes and rhythms.  As I tell my students, this is when we acknowledge our two signatures, key (notes) and time (rhythm).

I think that the scariest part of sight-reading is fear of the unknown.  This is why so many of us get into a rut of only practicing pieces that we know (and when we get bored with them, nothing at all).  But after only one time playing through a piece, you are already about 85% acquainted with all of the information on the page!

It’s important to remember that this is the worst it’s going to sound.  Naturally, step 2 will already be much better.  Also keep in mind that the point of practicing is not to sound perfect right away; practicing is for progress!  Personally, I like to conclude the sight-reading step as quickly as possible so that I can move immediately into making music.

STEP 2: Play it again – At this point, I will play through the piece again in its entirety.  When I first started to develop a system for organizing practice, I skipped this step.  Eventually I realized that with one more run through, I could pick up many of the things that had slipped past in the first go.  Step 1 focuses on notes and rhythms.  In step 2, the focus moves to the things that decorate the notes: dynamics and articulations.  The more things my brain could work out subconsciously, the less I had to actively practice in step 3.

The other function of step 2 requires a bit more awareness.  At the end of step 2, I note what items in the etude still don’t sound as good as everything else.  These items need actual practice rather than simple repetition, and are the focus of step 3.

STEP 3: Details – Step 3 is time to clean up the details.  In any given etude, you may have 3-6 spots that require microscopic work.  Step 3 is where we use the creative musical problem-solving methods that we’ve learned from music educators our whole lives.  Play it slower, play it faster, play it an octave up or down, play it with a different articulation, play it backwards, play with a different rhythm, play it on your mouth piece, clap it, sing it, look for alternate fingerings or tricks…and if none of that works, think of a way to creatively address the problem yourself!  Step 3 is one of the two most important steps in this practice method.

STEP 4: Perform it – Step 4 is the other most important step.  It is so hard for us musicians to find a way to practice performing.  Our brain has the unfortunate tendency to get stuck in the nit-picky detail stage.  When organizing an approach to practice, one of the issues I wanted to address was the need to go past the detail stage and engage in performance in my every day life.  So after I work out the details in Step 3, I perform the etude for myself.  In order to do this with any kind of authenticity, I must 1.) put myself into a performance frame of mind, 2.) accept any mistakes I make and move on instantly, and 3.) dedicate myself fully to enjoyment of the music making process.  The last of these is the easiest!  

I usually don’t practice exactly like this; the method is only a loose guide to organize my thoughts.  If I’m reading something new that I can digest very easily, I may combine steps 1 and 2.  If things are going really well, I may stop along the way to do step 3 as I hit the few spots that need attention. The thing that is most constant is step 4; these days, I always “perform” for myself before I set a piece of music aside for the day.  

On the other hand, if I am reading something that is very challenging, I may only do one step per practice session, culminating with a first “performance” on the fourth day.  Still, the aim is to make it to performing, even if it takes four days to get there.

There are numerous benefits to practicing with this method as a loose guide.  I can generally learn an etude from top to bottom in 10-15 minutes.  In that time, I will have played it through three times, all while focusing on the notes and rhythms / dynamics and articulations, practicing the tough spots, then performing it for myself.  

Also, you don’t have to be a professional to practice this way!  Do you have a trumpet in your closet?  Always wanted to play flute in your community band?  Took one year of piano lessons and still have your first music book?  I challenge you – unpack your instrument and spend 10 minutes making noises.  Learn one short piece.  You will enjoy yourself!  The only thing stopping you is your relationship with practice, your relationship with yourself, and what you truly think you are capable of doing.

I am sad to report: through undergoing this process, I accepted that playing in an ensemble is NOT the same thing as practicing your instrument.  Sorry, everyone – I’m as disappointed as you are!  In my early professional life, I would have a rehearsal and call that my playing for the day.  But since the growth of my practice life, I have realized that rehearsals do not fulfill the role that practice plays in the mental health of a musical individual.  While practicing is a relationship between oneself and one’s brain, rehearsal is a negotiation between the brains of all of the artists involved.  I found that when I was not practicing effectively as an individual, my self-esteem suffered.  When my self-esteem suffered, my ensemble playing suffered – even when I was playing in ensembles for 2-4 hours on a daily basis.  Now that I have a healthier relationship with practice, I can often recognize other musicians with healthy practice lives just from the way they sound.

I have learned a larger lesson through this part of my musical journey.  In the past year especially, I’ve realized that practicing is really a relationship with one’s full self.  In order to make more music, I had to organize my brain.  I then had to convince my brain that an etude is NOT a lot of music, and that learning it could be easy.  Then I had to use my brain to convince my body to undertake the actual physical playing of my instrument, because I knew the reward would be worthwhile.  Then my brain had to problem-solve all of the issues so that I could make the music sound the way I wanted.  Finally, I allowed myself the prize of one last time, purely for joy.  

Practicing this way is extremely pleasurable.  I have become a voracious reader of etudes.  These days I look forward to my practice sessions with relish.  I sometimes have to pull myself away because it’s no longer physically advisable to play any more.  It reminds me of my early teens, when I had found some musical independence and couldn’t get enough of my instrument.  I leave each of my practice sessions with a head full of music.   

So go take out your instrument.  

Get that etude book you bought in college - the one with no marks on it.  

Play a few scales in penance to the instrument gods.  

Turn to any page in the book.  

Check out your key and time signatures, then read it all the way through.  

Play it through a second time.

Look at the spots that need work.

Finally, perform beautiful music.

Turn the page; repeat.