To make efficient progress and avoid the trickiest problems, students need to learn how to work on their instruments systematically. The following techniques will help young players overcome problems that even normal, conscientious practicing may not solve.
General Good Practice Habits
Before attempting alternative practice techniques, a consistent practice regime is essential. Even ten or fifteen minutes of daily focused, well-planned time on the instrument will yield far better results than an hour crash-course once a week. Consistency is the key. Great progress comes from daily work outside rehearsals or private lessons.
Small, achievable goals are the first step. For beginners, offer incentives for ten minutes of practice per day, gradually increasing the length of the sessions. Serious players seeking All-State placement and entrance to a strong collegiate music program might practice more than two hours a day, but any student practicing appropriately for at least 30 minutes, five or six days a week, should make progress.
Note the importance of appropriate practice. Playing randomly through a method book or ensemble music produces little progress. Directors should help students set goals. Successful practice sessions include work on tone, technique, and repertoire. This can be as simple as providing an appropriate tone study, assigned scales, and repertoire. This music could be a solo, an excerpt for an upcoming playing exam, or a difficult passage in the ensemble music that needs work.
Key tools for successful practice include a pencil for marking changes, a tuner, and a metronome. Any technical work done without a metronome wastes time. (For more on this and other basic practice strategies, see my article from the November 2017 issue of The Instrumentalist, “What Students Need to Know About Practicing.”)
Sometimes students struggle with passages despite a solid routine and use of the metronome. Players should always turn the metronome to a slower speed if something cannot be played comfortably. They should only increase the tempo a few clicks at a time. To achieve muscle memory and comfort, time and working in small chunks is critical. However, even with well-planned practicing, some passages remain difficult. The following techniques offer help to overcome these challenges.
Occasionally, an awkward set of intervals or an oddly-notated passage leads to difficulties. A great way to work through passages that do not improve with normal good practice techniques is to change the offending section’s rhythm temporarily. I can’t explain why this technique works, but it does. The brain is tricked into learning a pattern or set of notes that it initially refused to retain in nearly all circumstances.
The first rhythm change is quite straightforward. If the difficult passage consists only of eighth notes or sixteenth notes, practice them in a long-short-long-short pattern. For example, the written pattern looks like this:
Have students practice the same pitches with the following pattern, observing the normal good-practice techniques for gradually increasing tempo.
This simple change is often just enough to overcome mental blocks developed in normal practice.
Another version of the above rhythm-change technique is to change the original straight-eighth pattern to a short-long-short-long pattern:
This technique also works well with sixteenth patterns.
First students can change it to the long-short-long-short pattern.
Then, they should switch to the short-long-short-long pattern.
While these rhythms may look overwhelming to beginners, there is no need to present them visually. Instead, model the patterns by playing or singing. Then ask students to attempt the patterns and provide feedback.
Students can also alter frustrating triplet or compound-eighth patterns. Consider this example:
This can be rewritten as duple eighth- and sixteenth-note patterns to practice the underlying notes.
Of course, this strategy will not help students address evenness in triplet and compound rhythms. Only use this for students who are struggling with technique and not rhythm. The same practice rules before apply.
More Advanced Alternate Rhythms
These rhythmic alterations will help unstick most technique problems. However, for particularly vexing rhythms, advanced students and professionals may want more options. One of the most effective hacks I use and teach changes sixteenth patterns into triplet groupings. For example, there are several alternatives for the sixteenth-note pattern.
It can be regrouped into a variety of triplet patterns for practice purposes.
If none of these alternative rhythms work, a final technique that often succeeds is the additive approach. With a slow metronome, play the first two notes of a line, focusing on absolute comfort. Play this on a loop until it is second nature. Then, after a few seconds of silence, loop the first three notes. Repeat this process, adding one note in the pattern at a time. This method can smooth out problems and identify the specific part of a phrase that is causing the root difficulty.
Alternative Articulation Strategies
When articulation patterns become problematic, there are several possible culprits to investigate. First, determine whether students can comfortably play the underlying technique without the articulation pattern. If not, dial their metronomes back and slowly build the passage while slurring. Once the passage is comfortable without the articulation, they can slide the metronome to a comfortable slow tempo, and repeat the process while adding the articulations. Using alternate rhythms will aid in this process.
This approach also alleviates the common problem of subconscious separation in the airstream. In all but the most extreme articulations (agogic and marcato accents), the tongue should do the work, with a full airstream blowing whole notes underneath.
In cases where technique is clear and the airstream is solid but slight discrepancies or inaccuracies remain in the articulation, use alternate patterns.
If a pattern like this stymies students, practice the following options to work around the impediment (again, with a metronome, working in small chunks from slow to the goal tempo).
In addition, there is a final hack to improve an exasperating articulation pattern that responds to nothing else. Finger the first pitch in the pattern, with the instrument held away from the face. Then, with the fingering held down, play the note and then remove the instrument from the embouchure. Repeat this process with each pitch in the passage. This can provide an effective brain reset that allows successful use of the above techniques.
Playing the Airstream
For enhanced musicianship in a new piece, try playing the airstream without the instrument. Blow and articulate just as you would for the music on the page, without miming fingerings. Blow a steady stream of air, let your tongue do each of the marked articulations, and change your airstream to the utmost for each dynamic. Notice whether you are accidentally breaking the airstream. Check whether the execution of the articulations and dynamics matches the music. This briefly removes technique from the equation and permits refinement of these important factors.
Everyone is different, but every problem has a solution. Hopefully this grab-bag of techniques can serve as a jumping-off-point for solving any problem during practice. Once technique and articulations are second nature, players can get on with making meaningful, moving, beautiful music.