How to practice effectively

News about effective practicing based on research by Annie Bosler & Don Greene.

The link is to a TED ED video that is very compelling. I think the explanation of the biology of how the brain and the nervous system work is well worth the five minutes it takes to watch the video. Since it goes by fast, I’ve taken some notes:

Quality effective practice is consistent, intensely focused, targets content or weaknesses that lie at the edge of our capability. To practice effectively we need to focus on the task at hand, eliminate distractions (Facebook is mentioned, but there are many distractions vying for attention). Then, start out slowly, or in slow motion. We all know that slow practice is the “go to” technique for elite performers. Interesting to learn that coordination is built with repetitions, whether correct or incorrect. If we gradually increase the speed of the quality repetitions, we have a better chance of doing them correctly. (I want to read more about this.)

Frequent repetitions with allotted breaks are common practice habits of elite performers. In fact, the most successful performers devote 50-60 hrs. per week on activities related to the craft. But, multiple daily practice sessions of limited duration are most effective. Research has shown that “practice in the brain” actually is as worthwhile as physical practice once we have established and know in vivid detail what we need to do. I would caution that “brain practice” really isn’t a substitute for physical practice, rather, it is worthwhile in addition to physical practice. Physical motion established can be reinforced just by imagining it.

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Medir bassoon cane

Several years ago I bought six dulcian reeds direct from Medir in Catalonia (Spain). The reeds were so good that since then I’ve been meaning to try some of the modern bassoon cane.

Finally took the plunge!

I’m play testing the first three reeds from a batch of gouged/shaped/profiled cane (Rieger 1A shape) and I’m very pleased. I notice that the cane is a bit hard but the sound is even and full up and down the range. Maybe the profile is thicker than usual for me–with medium density cane–but, I could always try re-profiling.

With any new cane, shape, etc., there is a learning curve. I cut the reeds to 57 mm overall length, that’s 30 mm from the front of the first wire to the tip, and finished the tips with my Rieger tip profiler (factory taper). On one of the three reeds I’ve worked on the back of the blades and sanded a little overall to get the pitch and response where it should be. All three new reeds respond very nicely with breath attacks at the top of the staff (a, b-flat, b, c). The forked e-flat is in tune without the help of the right hand. I think I’m not in a hurry to coax rich and noisy vibration out of these reeds yet, but with more sanding I’m sure I could get there. For now, it’s probably best to let the reeds settle down before further adjustments. Expect updates on the Medir cane story in the coming weeks.

Update: I’ve noticed that the Medir G/S/P profile is a bit heavy in the back. I usually aim for .030 inches at the collar. The Medir cane I got was on average .037 inches at the collar. I previously mentioned re-profiling, but I think it will work to file/sand the back of the profiled blade to get it down closer to .030 inches. That way, if this cane works better with a slightly thicker profile (say, .032 inches), I won’t miss it!?!

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Glickman-Popkin Bassoon Camp 2017

News about the GLICKMAN-POPKIN BASSOON CAMP – 40th YEAR!
10 Days at Wildacres Retreat, Little Switzerland, North Carolina
Monday, May 29 to Thursday, June 8, 2017

Register here:

http://bassooncamp.com/2017-info/2017-online-registration/

               fei-xie           michael-sweeney                  ludwig

This year’s daily masterclasses will be given by our Camp founding father Loren Glickman, assisted by the legendary Leonard Hindell. We are also very pleased to welcome magnificent guest artists Xie Fei, principal bassoonist with the Baltimore Symphony, Michael Sweeney, principal bassoonist with the Toronto Symphony, and William Ludwig, professor of bassoon at Indiana University. Our program also features bassoon repairs for all full-session Campers by Paul Nordby, of world-renowned Paul Nordby Bassoon Repair. Our daily classes in Reed Making will continue this year, given by reed guru Jim Poe. Fox Bassoons will return to present their latest bassoon designs and innovations.

The lineup looks just terrific! Highly recommended!

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Looking sharp in the upper register

Playing scale patterns in sharp keys can be challenging, especially in the upper register. In A major, the following fingering pattern emerges:

bassoon-fingering-template5

Notice the right-hand cross fingering between e, f-sharp, and g, and the left-hand cross fingering between e and f-sharp. Cross fingering patterns can produce snags if not carefully and methodically developed. So, here is the first set of exercises designed to work on these problems:

a-major-exercise-1

Each measure can be repeated multiple times. Begin playing slowly and gradually increase tempo to establish your “outer limit.” It is best to avoid playing too fast since we don’t want to practice these patterns with wrong notes, etc. Another sequence that can be very helpful in isolating glitches is this one:

a-major-exercise-2

Here, we work through the cycle and play one of the notes longer, the rest shorter. In the first measure, the first note (e) is long, in the second measure the second note (f-sharp) is long, and so on. Since for practical purposes, all of the intervals between these notes will be important, the next step is to mix them up:

a-major-exercise-3

If you find a particularly gnarly interval, especially when slurred, be sure to isolate and work on that fingering pattern. Investing some effort into patterns like these will yield great dividends, enabling you to play with confidence and poise as you conquer the technical challenges. (Thanks to SS!)

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Personal etude

We’ve discovered a clever little “personal” etude this week. Here it is:

fingerpattern1

It captures the tricky b/c# interval that can always use more repetitions, crosses the break from e/f# with a touchy half hole, includes top space g for pitch accuracy and left-hand pinky precision, then descends to repeat.

With dotted rhythms, we can improve finger trajectories:

fingerpattern2

fingeringpattern4

Then, for something a bit more involved, and useful for finding the latent lapses, here is the pattern in triplets (notice how it takes three cycles to come out even):

fingerpattern3.jpg

Later in the week we decided that a great way to really clean up the digits is to play short staccato:

fingeringpattern5

Apply in liberal daily doses, rinse and repeat often. Add to your favorite warmup routine!

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Starting the conversation . . .

This week, we’ll be focusing on practice routines. What are your favorite patterns for warm up or technical exercise? Here is a 1990 article by an old friend from grad school:

http://www.idrs.org/publications/controlled/DR/DR13.1/DR13.1.Allison.Practice.html

I think it is very important to take short breaks after each 20-30 minutes of work, and to vary activities during each 20-30 minute session. Until we have a practice routine imprinted in our psyche, we should write it down and stick to it by the clock. Some new metronomes now have timers so that we can set the clock for each segment. Quite an improvement over my mother’s egg timer!?!

I tend to rotate through several different  long tones and technique routines. Recently, I’ve been using drone pitches to tune by ear. Particularly helpful is the “D” drone pitch. Tune D, d, d’, and d”. Then, test G, g, and g’ followed by A, a, and a’. These are all perfect intervals. If you choose a drone tone that is a fairly simple waveform, you’ll be able hear the “beats”–interference caused by two slightly different frequencies. The faster the beats, the greater the difference between the frequencies.

tuning-ds

Transpose the pattern to tune other tonic/sub-dominant/dominant sets.

I also use this combination long tone/technique workout that has been associated with Simon Kovar (and his student Ray Pizzi):

arpeggioExtend the range out to at least an octave above and below the starting pitch. Choose different starting pitches for variety.

Here is an arpeggio pattern that helps exercise voicing, finger precision, pitch, and flexibility:

arpeggio

Try different starting keys for variety.

Finally, here are links to three sample warm-up videos with master teachers:

P.S. Here is a transcription of the pattern used by Matsukawa in his “Five with One Stone”:

five-with-one-stone

Thanks to R.K. for the new header logo!

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Conditioning: Tuning Long Tones

sine-wave

Practicing long tones with a tuner is a very good way to recondition our wind playing apparatus: embouchure, oral cavity, breath support, and ears. Hardware tuners work very well. Most are adjusted to slightly “average” the pitch produced to make the display consistent (if they were too sensitive, the “needle” would jump around too much for meaningful feedback). Of course, sometimes we want to know in detail how steady (or not) we are playing.

The best software tuner I’ve found is iStroboSoft ($9.99) by Peterson. This app is available for iOS and Android. For the intensely serious, the flagship software is Peterson’s desktop software, StroboSoft ($49/$99) for Mac or PC. Why is it the best? Well, the strobe display gives you more information about the sound you are producing, and the sensitivity is incomparable. So, we’re seeing the truth about the long tones we play!

Another equally important exercise is to tune by ear. Using a pitch reference (some electronic tuners have pitch generating capability–I record a simple loop of an electronically generated tone in my DAW), play long tones at the unison, octave(s), fifth, and fourth. One develops the ability to hear the “beats” if the pitches do not agree. The next step is to practice long tone scales and arpeggios with the reference pitch. Learning to tune accurately by ear, of course, is a real-world skill.

Maybe the best approach is to use both approaches!? Try a set of long tones with the tuner of your choice. Begin in the mid-range, and gradually extend out to the higher and lower registers. Vary the loudness. The more conscientious we are about playing consistently in tune with a good sound, the better the workout. Then, switch on the reference pitch(s) and play a set of long tones by ear. I think the work with the tuner ultimately will be good for our aural hygiene, especially as we depend more and more on our ears! Daily long tones/pitch workouts will pay big dividends in terms of endurance, reliability, and confidence.

 

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Practice makes . . . better

“Why do some people achieve outsize success? Given the competitive nature of the modern world, it’s a question many have spent time thinking about. The usual answer is that success results from some combination of talent, luck, and hard work. Tales of prodigies and “naturals,” born ready to conquer the world, tend to minimize the importance of hard work, but the whole formula may need a rethink. That’s the message of Peak, a new book by Florida State University psychology professor Anders Ericsson and science writer Robert Pool. Ericsson has spent decades studying the concept of “deliberate practice,” the sort of hard, unglamorous focus on improvement that gets results. This highly readable book distills Ericsson’s work for a general audience, while raising thought-provoking questions about what talent really is.” Read the full review . . .

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Teach Yourself

Interestingly, students spend many more hours in the practice room alone than in rehearsals or private lessons working with teachers. How can we spend that alone time in the practice room to greatest benefit? We learn to teach ourselves!

Young children often have outstanding hearing and great capability for aural discrimination. They can pick up on the slightest sound and notice fine details about the sounds and sound patterns they hear. Unfortunately, when children begin learning an instrument, they have to switch off their sensitive ears in order to tolerate the “sounds” they make. Then, as they improve through middle school and high school, I think it is important for them to re-engage their faculty of critical hearing to be able to make real progress. If we listen carefully, there is so much we can notice about the sounds we produce!

The main concept I’m working on in this post is assessment: the process of paying attention to the way we play, and engaging our “teaching brain” to help ourselves identify improvements we can make. For example, which intervals are causing trouble? Listen again. Are the fingerings accurate, are the finger movements precise? Then, can I design an exercise to work on each tough spot?

Often, teachers have “go to” practice techniques they like to prescribe for working on difficult passages. The most basic of these is to dramatically slow the tempo, using a metronome, and repeat the passage many times, gradually increasing the tempo. I think it was pointed out that if one repeats something 10,000 times, mastery can be achieved. The challenge is that 10,000 repetitions is awfully laborious.

 

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times” [Bruce Lee]

My experience is that if I engage my critical thinking skills while I practice, I can use time more efficiently and make each repetition count. I can direct my attention in such a way as to improve the likelihood that each time through will be more accurate.

Rhythm Method. The masters know that practicing difficult passages using modified rhythms really works. Here is a passage we need to improve (#1), followed by practice patterns I suggest to students on a regular basis:

#1. Original passage

PracticePattern1
The first step is to try just changing the rhythm to a dotted (long-short, #2).

#2. Dotted rhythm

PracticePattern2.jpg
And, in the interest of thoroughness, try the first practice pattern in reverse (short-long, #3).

#3. Reverse dotted rhythm

PracticePattern3.jpg
These patterns reveal things about what is awkward, and what is not. Try re-arranging the rhythm even further by assigning triplets (#4).

#4. Triplets

PracticePattern4.jpg
To be sure you’ve really played triplets, change the articulation to emphasize the triplets (#5). You may even want to accent the first note of every triplet.

#5. Triplets with slurs for emphasis

PracticePattern5
A really terrific way to clean up the fingers is to play the passage with short staccato (#6). For some reason, the fingers seem to work much more cleanly when we articulate the passage this way.

#6. Short staccato with accents

PracticePattern6

Now Regroup. Probably my favorite approach is to regroup the notes in a difficult passage in order to train my brain/fingers to see and feel the music differently. Then, after I’ve imprinted the regrouping, when I play the passage “as written,” I notice my technique is more secure and the passage is more comfortable. First plan out groups of notes according to the step-wise or conjunct motion (#7). You are looking for little chunks of scales.

#7. Regroup the notes according to step-wise (conjunct) motion

PracticePattern7

You can play the regrouped passage as is, or even better, try emphasizing the groups of notes by leaving spaces between the groups (#8).

#8. Emphasize the regrouped units.

PracticePattern8

Why do these practice approaches actually work? We aren’t machines. Our processing power is actually quite slow, but we have great powers of observation (to the point of distraction) and we notice all kinds of interesting patterns and sequences in everything we encounter. In fact, we can keep track of several things at once, it seems. I think we need to use that innate skill to our advantage.

Also, just as a general rule, I am always at war with my native clumsiness. If I can focus on the patterns that come more naturally (e.g. scales with step-wise motion), and avoid obsessing on the patterns that are awkward (e.g. wide leaps and disjunct motion), I don’t occupy my brain with so many of the non-essentials. Notice how re-grouping de-emphasizes the disjunct motion (leaps), e.g. in #9 the leap between the third and fourth note is ignored because we’ve grouped the third note with the previous note(s) and the fourth note with the following note(s). In this challenging passage (#9), I tend to see the scale groups as one pattern each.

#9. Challenging passage.

PracticePattern9

It’s easier to focus on the groups if I add some slurs (#10)

#10. Challenging passage, regrouped with slurs.

PracticePattern10

Well, spend your hours in the practice room and make some REAL progress by staying engaged, keeping your ears open, and being intentional. Of course, you will want to rinse and repeat daily. Play it like you mean it, and happy bassooning!

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Boismortier Concerto & Maurice Allard

Bernard Wahl - Nonesuch.jpg

I was a young bassoon student (the case almost touched the ground when I carried it by the handle) taking lessons once a week with Wilbur Simpson (for many years second bassoonist with the Chicago Symphony). One week, before we headed upstairs to his bassoon studio, he ushered me into the living room and said, “I want you to hear this!” He carefully laid an LP on the turntable, located the needle and turned up the volume. Enthusiastically, he exclaimed, “Wait ’til you hear this–a french bassoonist with a marvelous tone!” For my first experience hearing the french bassoon, I was blessed with the round sound of the incomparable Maurice Allard (1923-2004) performing Boismortier’s Concerto in D. Read William Waterhouse’s biographical sketch of Allard.

Allard

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