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A Word to Students and Parents Regarding Practice

Parents sometimes wonder what they should be listening for when their child practices. Students very often are not quite sure what they should be doing when they practice. There is nothing more important in learning music than to study correctly. Some students tend to simply repeat a difficult passage over and over, as if it would improve simply with repetition. That is similar to saying "two plus two equals five" over and over. It will never be correct just by repeating the mistake! The most successful students are those that are the most efficient in their practice, and I can tell you from personal experience that you can literally waste years with incorrect practice. With this in mind, let me give some ideas to improve the study of music:

Follow the general format used in lessons.

1. Tone study.

Music is above all the study of sound. It doesn't matter how fast or flashy someone plays if the tone is bad. Do your best to make the study of tone quality (as well as everything else) as objective as possible. Students at different levels of study will be working on different exercises, but always remember that the beginnings and endings of notes can reveal more about embouchure, breath control, and equipment problems than the very subjective idea of tone quality once the note has started. Tone quality and intonation go hand in hand. Modern instruments are actually well in tune overall (it is physically impossible to make a fixed length wind instrument with perfect intonation, but that is another topic) when played correctly. This is why it is very helpful in the study of tone quality to have an electronic tuner.

2. Scales.

The vast majority of music we play is based on the major and minor scales (and variations) Trying to play music without knowing these scales is similar to studying a foreign language without knowing the meaning of any of the words in that language. The major and minor scales are the bare minimum for fluency in performance. Those studying improvisation need to know many more scales and arpeggios. In his series on improvisation Jamie Abersold lists well over 200 scales used by jazz musicians. Students attempting to perform well without being able to play scales fluently are simply kidding themselves and wasting time. Spend time EVERY day working on scales. Identify the scales giving you problems. Work on the sections that are difficult. Write down the scales you KNOW. Knowing a scale means being able to play it perfectly EVERY time, without exception. There should be a measurable improvement in the performance of scales and/or arpeggios at every single practice session.

3. Etude book.

Every student will have at least one etude (or study) book. Advanced students will often have at least two. The assignment will be clearly identified in the lesson and written on the weekly evaluation form.

4. Solo.

Every student except beginners will have a solo to work on. During preparation for county and state band auditions the solo may be put "on hold" to allow more time for the required etudes.

5. Sight reading.

Sight reading is an absolute essential in music. This skill is developed over time, and as such must be studied daily. Read something every day, and when sight reading do not stop to practice the material. Force yourself to continue and ignore mistakes.

6. Band music.

This will usually be the easiest music for students studying privately. Please feel free to bring out assignments for your band class so that we can study them during the lesson.

General practicing methods. The slowest, most boring, and least effective way to study is to simply repeat a piece of music over and over from top to bottom. Studying music is exactly like studying math or any higher level discipline. DO NOT PRACTICE WHAT YOU ALREADY KNOW! 95% of your practice will often be over only 5% of the music. If you can play a passage, review it from time to time, but concentrate on the difficult passages. MARK YOUR MUSIC WITH A PENCIL. Anytime I hear a student having a difficult time with music that is not marked I know that effective practice has not taken place. Circle areas that are a problem. Study the problem area without your instrument. Clap the rhythm. Sing the part (if you cannot sing it, you cannot play it--this is the truth!). Know how the part should sound before you play. How can you possible know whether or not the section is correct if you don't know how it should sound? I will provide some specific methods for specific areas of study.

Have goals for each practice session. There should be measurable improvement every time you play your instrument. Remember, if you are not concentrating, you are not learning. Concentration itself is not the problem. Your brain is telling you that it is bored beyond tolerance. When that is the case, narrow your focus to a single area of performance: think specifically about tone quality, fingering, intonation, attacks and releases, etc. Work on a different assignment and come back to the problem piece. If that doesn't work, put down the instrument and come back to it later. Know exactly what is under control, and what needs more work. If you are having a problem with a section, and you don't know how to improve it, I have not done my job! Mark difficult sections and bring them up for discussion in the lesson.

There is a great deal of misconception about how long it takes to learn to play proficiently on a musical instrument. The amount of time needed to master a task is directly related to the efficient use of time in studying the task. Repetition by itself will not lead to success. My goal is for each student to be better after each and every lesson, and each student should know exactly what to do to improve for the next lesson. If you ever have a doubt regarding what to practice or how to practice, give me a call during the week. My success as a teacher depends entirely on your success as a student. We both have a responsibility.

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