HOW SHOULD I PRACTICE? © 2007 Sue Terry
This question was posed to me by a student named Geni in Albania. It seems this question looms large in the minds of students no matter where they are on the planet. In this article I’ll give you some exercises and ideas that have helped me in my own practice sessions, and those of my students.
STARTING YOUR SESSION
I always start a practice session with longtones. Those of you who’ve been to my masterclasses are familiar with my battle cry: do your longtones! Detailed info about longtones can be found in my article “The Secret of a Good Sound”, so I won’t go into more depth here. Let’s just say that ‘a few longtones a day keep the doctor away.’
Players should spend part of their practice session on scales and other patterns. It’s important to be able to play the chromatic scale and all the major scales from memory. The fingerings that you use in the scales will cover at least 90% of fingerings that you will come across in songs. If you learn the melodic and harmonic minor scales as well, that will basically cover the other 10%. If you learn all of the above scales in thirds, you might discover some fingerings that haven’t been invented yet! (Just kidding. I think.)
A lot of melodies in Western music (meaning Western European-derived music, which is what much American music is based on) are diatonic, which means they only use the notes in a single major scale. That’s pretty cool, because it means you can figure out thousands of songs by ear, just by mixing the notes in a major scale. But don’t try this at home until you can really play at least one scale-- forward, backward, in thirds, sideways and any other way you can think of. Otherwise, you might throw some unauthorized notes into the mix, and that will stop you from figuring out the song you’re working on.
SCALES ARE NOT BORING
There’s no reason to get bored practicing scales. A scale is a beautiful piece of music all by itself. When you practice your scales, try to make them sound as pretty as the songs you’re working on. With the assistance of your metronome, someday you will be able to rip through all your scales with speed and grace. That will free you from struggling with technique, and you’ll be able to concentrate on other important things, like tone, interpretation and creativity.
USING THE METRONOME
Frequently students are obsessed with being able to play fast. The musical results of this obsession usually include inappropriate tempo fluctuations, tonal and rhythmic inaccuracies, and general sloppiness. Not to mention that guilty feeling of knowing, consciously or subconsciously, that you aren’t really nailing it. I will now divulge the amazing secret of playing fast: play slowly! Here is where your metronome comes into the picture. If you don’t have a metronome, please obtain one immediately.* If your metronome is gathering dust on the top shelf, get it down, dust it off, replace the batteries, and set it to 60 beats per minute.
For your first exercise, just listen to the metronome. Start to feel the tempo with your body, so that you can tap your foot along with it. It’s essential to develop a relaxed relationship with the time. True ease of playing, at any tempo, depends on mental and physical relaxation as opposed to tension, and building your technique from the ground up, slowly and gradually. Take a difficult passage, and find a tempo on your metronome at which you can play the passage easily. It doesn’t matter how slowly you have to play it to start out. Every day you will increase the metronome marking by one notch. If, at any point, you cannot play the passage accurately and with a relaxed approach, stay on that metronome marking for as many days as it takes to do so. Don’t spend more than 20 minutes per practice session on this exercise. By practicing in this way, eventually you will ride out the plateau and be able to move the metronome up again, until achieving the desired tempo.
Do you remember a movie called “Karate Kid”? This kid wants to learn karate from an old Japanese master, so the kid shows up at his house every day for lessons. But every day the karate master just makes him wax his car, moving the cloth in a slow, circular motion. After the kid does that for a couple of weeks straight, he has to paint the fence, with short brush strokes up and down, slowly, exactly the way the master says. After a seeming eternity of waxing the car and painting the fence, the kid complains to the master that he’s not learning any karate. Whereupon the master comes at him with a karate move, and shazzam—the kid blocks him with his ‘waxing the car’ move. Then he blocks the master’s next move with ‘painting the fence.’ The kid does it naturally, fast as heck, without thinking. I hope you’re seeing the analogy here.
Being a longtime practitioner of T’ai Chi Chuan, which is a martial art form that is practiced very slowly, I can attest to the effectiveness of this method. It works with a lot of things, and works wonders when applied to practicing your instrument.
FINDING THE WEAK LINK
If you have a song with a difficult melody that you want to feel more comfortable on, it’s essential to pinpoint EXACTLY which measures are difficult. Often, you can already play most of the song, and it’s just a few sections that are hard. Usually a hard section hinges on 2 notes. Find those 2 notes. I always say ‘a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.’ So you need to find the weak link in your chain, and fix it. Otherwise, the song will ‘train wreck’, as we say in the business, every time you get to that part. You’ll discover that focusing on the weak links in a song, and fixing them, will do wonders for your ability to play the entire song all the way through without stopping, which is what a player must do in any performance, professional or otherwise.
Another aspect of playing is memorizing some pieces, so that you’re not dependent on having sheet music in front of you to play. I think anyone who calls her/himself a musician should be able to play things by memory, and also by ear. When you’re learning a piece by memory, you can use a similar approach to the ‘weak link’ theory: Take a small piece of the song, say, the first two measures, and memorize that. You’ll often find that you already have the beginning memorized, without even realizing it! Keep adding parts in small sections, a little every day, until you have the whole piece memorized. Usually a song will have repeated sections, and of course that helps, since when the repeated section comes around, you’ll already know that part.
PLAY BY EAR
Spend a few minutes of every session practicing playing ‘by ear.’ This means to play a piece of music without seeing it written down. First, SING a simple song (it doesn’t have to sound good, it’s only you listening!) like a folk song, children’s song or Christmas carol. We’ve all heard these types of songs since we were babies, and they are really a part of us. It helps to know the words to the song. If you can sing it, you can play it! If you get stuck on an interval (the distance between two notes), use the ‘weak link’ method again. Practice singing those two notes, with their words, so you really have the sound in your head. Find the first note on your instrument, then find the second note. This ability is what’s known as ‘relative pitch’, meaning that your ear recognizes the intervals between notes. And as Einstein discovered, everything is relative!
• Always start your practice session by LISTENING to the sound of your instrument. If you are a wind or string player, or vocalist, listen to the tones as you hold them out, one by one. If you are a pianist or percussionist, you can still listen deeply to the tones, even though they cannot be sustained as long.
• Know your major scales, for they are the building blocks of most of the music you will play.
• Use your metronome, it keeps you honest.
• Find the weak links in your pieces and fix them.
• Play something by memory, and something by ear.
* Watch for my upcoming article “10 Fun (And Completely Legal) Things You Can Do With Your Metronome”
Saxophone soloist, composer, and educator “Sweet” Sue Terry has performed and recorded with many jazz VIPs, and has been a frequent performer at international jazz festivals and venues such as Jazz at Lincoln Center and The Kennedy Center. Her discography contains over forty recordings, including her latest releases “BANDLEADER 101” and “Gilly’s Caper,” and her solo saxophone recording “Pink Slimy Worm.” She’s been a jazz soloist with several U.S. symphony orchestras as well as jazz orchestras, and leads her own quintet. She is the author of four instruction books, and is a regular columnist for Jazz Inside Magazine. Sue is also a clinician for Yamaha, Hal Leonard, and the Associated Board of Royal Schools of Music in London. She is a Yamaha artist. See www.suterry.com for more information.