Monday, October 17, 2016

Four Tips to Avoid Practicing on Auto Pilot

I consider practicing fundamental technique to be a hugely important part of being a musician. As a result, I practice my fundamentals as close to daily as I possibly can. For trumpet, that includes "multi-tonguing," or double and triple tonguing. Multi-tonguing is a skill that you need to practice regularly in order to maintain a high level.

I was recently working on my double tonguing and noticed my sound quality deteriorating in the upper register on certain passages. This is not uncommon, and it's one of the reasons I practice that particular exercise. But what was weird was what I did next: nothing.

Did I make a note in my SPM entry about it? Nope. I “made a mental note” to pursue that some other time, which really means I was just glossing over the problem.

I thought about it a little more and realized it's been sounding that way for a while. And I've just gotten used to it.

Accepting sub-par playing while you practice means you’re practicing sub-par playing!

Seriously. What was I thinking?

Mostly, I wasn't thinking. But luckily I caught it. I immediately noted it in the SPM and set to work figuring it out. Now that it's on my radar, I can focus on fixing the problem over the next few sessions. Hopefully it won't be too hard to fix, but really it doesn't matter how long it takes or how difficult it is... Nobody wants to hear bad articulation. And I certainly don't want to practice bad articulation!!

What to do about it:

OK, so it's all well and good to notice that this is happening, but what can we do about it? Here are four tips you can use in your own practice:

  1. Be Aware - Whenever you're practicing, be mindful of the fact that it is possible to gloss over problems without even realizing it. DECIDE to put a little extra mental focus in. Pay attention to what you're doing. Are you really getting the sound you want?
  2. Take Notes - If you notice something isn't quite right, STOP. Write it down (of course, the best place to do this would be in the Structured Practice Method!). Even if you address it right away, it is so incredibly easy to forget about it the next time you practice!! Don't let that happen! Write it down and be SURE!!
  3. Read your notes at the end and at the beginning of every practice session - This is really important. Writing this stuff down does you very little good if you never look at it! Whenever you finish a practice session, go back and look at your notes from the session to reinforce your memory of what you were working on. You'll remember it better tomorrow. Then, next time you practice, re-read your notes on the item you're practicing to remind yourself of what you want to focus on this time. You will be amazed at how much you forget every day. And don't even get me started on how much you forget if any more than a day goes by. It’s just a fact that human memory is notoriously unreliable.
  4. RECORD THYSELF - I tell my students to do this all the time, and I'm getting better about practicing what I preach (hey, nobody's perfect!). There is no substitute for this. As you're playing, you are busy creating your musical product. You cannot possibly do your absolute best playing AND hear everything at the same time.
    • When you first start recording and playing things back, it will be an eye opener. It can also make you feel bad, so do try to be kind to yourself. Pick one thing (and only one!)  and work on fixing it, then record yourself and do it again. As you do this, you will learn to appreciate the honesty of the recording.
    • Try not to get hung up on getting a recording studio quality recording in the practice room. I can get very obsessive about this stuff, so I know... you can end up putting recording yourself off until you have the "right" equipment, or acoustics, etc. etc. Don't fall into this trap! Grab your smart phone, pull up a simple voice memo app, and take the plunge. You might not be able to work on nuances of tone production (though you may be surprised), but you'll certainly hear pitch, rhythm, notes, phrasing. That's plenty to get you started!

Final Thoughts

It's not easy to always have the highest standards and mental focus while you're practicing. Don't beat yourself up if you slip. Everybody slips. Just get back on the horse and keep trying. All that matters is that today you do a little bit better than you did yesterday.

As always, if you have questions of ideas you can add, feel free to post in the comments!

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