Answers About Practice

Michael Banewicz | February 2017

    I vividly remember a sign hanging in my middle school band room depicting Uncle Sam pointing at the onlooker with the slogan, “I want you to practice every day!” After rehearsal, the closing words of the class were often, “Be sure to take home your instruments to practice.” At home, my parents strongly enforced their rule of no television until I practiced my trumpet. Every music teacher frequently emphasizes how imperative daily practice is to being successful in music. In fact, many educators go to great lengths – from assigning grades to providing extrinsic incentives – to ensure their students are taking their instruments home on a daily basis, but getting students to take instruments home is only half the battle. Once the instruments are home and the practice session begins, practice sessions have to be productive. Students should consider what, where, when, why, and how to practice.

What do I practice?
    In band programs, emphasis is often put on having a successful performance. Although it is excellent to work toward mastering parts, the fundamentals of playing the instrument must not be overlooked. Teach students to identify these fundamentals and provide a structured method for practicing them. Trumpet player and music teacher Scott Freeby breaks the practice session into five sections: warmup, workout, break, sightreading, and cooldown. Five minutes are devoted to the warmup, which should include exercises for tone development, articulation, and finger dexterity. Fifteen minutes are devoted to the workout, which includes scales, repertoire (band music), etudes, and solos. After the workout, four minutes are taken to give the body a short time to recover. Once the break is over, four minutes are devoted to sightreading or other related exercises that require the brain to work. The final two minutes should be reserved for warming down. This kind of a routine is efficient and, if practiced regularly, will result in rapid improvement.

Where do I practice?
    As much as students want to believe otherwise, standing in front of the television is, in fact, an ineffective place to practice. The best practice environments are ones that promote focus. Therefore, it is recommended to have a designated area away from distractions like the television, computers, smart phones, and noisy younger siblings, so all attention may be focused on the practice session and meeting the practice goals for that day. To enhance the productivity of the session, some additional items this area should include are a chair, a music stand, a tuner, a metronome, and sufficient lighting. In this environment, the productivity of a practice session improves ten-fold in comparison to distracting ones.

When do I practice?
    All directors can attest that the most work in rehearsals seems to get done during the week before the concert. Unfortunately, one cannot develop the necessary musculature when only practicing sporadically before performance exams and concerts. The analogy of brushing your teeth only on the days of a dentist appointment comes to mind; it doesn’t do much good.
    The short answer to the question of when to practice is regularly. Practice daily to build the muscles used to perform on an instrument. Consistent practice fine-tunes muscle coordination, develops muscle memory, and increases endurance. Rest is also required to develop fully. In the time between practice sessions, muscles repair and strengthen. This is why four hours of practice over the course of a week is more beneficial than four hours crammed into one session. When practice is daily, the material learned on previous days carries over into subsequent sessions and provides more continuity.
    Once a certain level of performance is achieved, it must be maintained. Inconsistent practice results in stagnation or even deterioration in performance ability. Daily practice ensures that our students are always getting better.

Why do I practice?
    As mature musicians, music teachers often overestimate students’ prior knowledge. Students do not always set goals for themselves and approach their assignments with the step-by-step method expected. I can personally attest to writing “practice scales” on my students’ practice logs. How much more vague could I have been? Does that mean practice major or minor scales? Does that mean practice slurred or tongued scales? Does that mean practice scales at a certain steady tempo? Or does it mean something different altogether? Although teachers may know what they mean, expectations must be clearly and specifically articulated so students can go into their practice sessions with clear goals in mind. Then, when our students ask why they have to practice something, it will be apparent.

How do I practice?

    It is a common occurrence for students to practice music by running through it repeatedly at performance tempo. In some instances this is valuable, but in most, it is not. In this form of practice, it is nearly impossible to play all musical aspects correctly. This ultimately leads to learning passages incorrectly and developing poor habits. To ensure this does not happen, students must be taught how to practice.
    There are many recommended approaches for this, and I have adopted a colleague’s method, called the Five Points of Practice. These points include: rhythm, pitch, articulation, dynamics, and phrasing. The approach to this method is simple. Play the music at a slow enough tempo where all five points can be done correctly at all times. Once the piece is learned slowly, it is only a matter of speeding up the metronome before the piece is mastered. I have experienced success with this approach both as a teacher and as a performer. Students should avoid practicing each point individually for extensive periods of time. For example, if rhythms are practiced exclusively for ten repetitions, pitch, articulation, dynamics, and phrasing have been practiced incorrectly for ten repetitions. Now, in exchange for developing one good habit, four bad habits have been learned. With a structure such as the Five Points of Practice, students will develop each of these areas of musicianship equally and will become well-balanced players.

    Practice outside of class will always be a necessary responsibility for music students to succeed in band. By answering what, where, when, why, and how to practice, students are provided with both material and methods to practice. When students have these answers, it validates the assignments they are given and will increase their productivity and success rate dramatically.