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

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

#2. Dotted rhythm

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

#3. Reverse dotted rhythm

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

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

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


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


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.


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.


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

#10. Challenging passage, regrouped with slurs.


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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