Practice Makes Perfect, But HOW?

I had a revelation recently about practicing an instrument that I want to post about, in the hopes of opening up a discussion.

What do we tell a student who can’t play a fast passage? We say, “Slow down, and work up to it.” But that seems to be the only instance in which such an attitude is permissible. If a passage is really soft, we never encourage students to learn it a little louder and work toward softness. Same with a loud dynamics. Same with a slow passage (play it faster and then slow it down incrementally). Same with very high and very low.

I have been as guilty as anyone in this. “Play softer, like it’s marked!” But my new strategy is to move from strength into weakness. Can’t play this section with a good sound? Play it with a bad sound, then work toward quality. This part is too low? Play it up a few steps, then inch down. We horn players have a famous orchestral excerpt from Shostakovitch’s 5th Symphony that is the bane of most horn players’ existence because it is low, loud, and sustained, which is a tough combination. New solution: learn to play it soft. Learn to play it with only the beginnings of each note loud, then later work on sustaining the volume. Play it a little higher, then work down.

I recently bought a  book on brass embouchures (how we hold our lips), with lots of radical new ideas on how to play our instruments. I’m not sure I agree with everything in this book, but the teacher who wrote it was willing to think way outside the box and come up with new ideas. Funny how, in a creative field like music, new ideas about how to play are generally scorned and not even considered (the same, by the way, goes for new equipment).

I am going to make it my mission to entertain any new ideas about anything, and examine them and try them and see if they work. Step one will be finding new ways to practice: figure out what you CAN do, then work toward what you can’t do, even if, in so doing, you are breaking the norms of how you are “supposed” to practice.

Open-mindedness is hard.

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