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.


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:

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.


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:


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”:


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

Conditioning: Tuning Long Tones


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.

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 . . .

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!

Dancing fingers

tenUnless we are very secure in our “digital” technique, we may encounter fast, technically difficult passages and experience the nauseating feeling of “digital” overload! If the speed we can manage with confident manual dexterity is exceeded, fingers twitch and dance about as if frantically probing the darkness for a light switch! Our fingers sketch the interval patterns–we’re rolling the dice with the notes on the page. Sure, there’s one chance in 272,160 that we randomly might grab the right fingering for a given note, but that level of accuracy will get us fired! So, how can we gain security with our finger technique and increase our speed limit?

Most everyone knows that consistent slow practice is the key to developing technical superiority. Starting slowly and steadily, we gradually increase our speed while maintaining accuracy. Little by little we painstakingly work to program our fingers with many and multiple combinations–for every possible interval. In fact, if we could smoothly, quickly, and accurately perform every possible interval on the instrument (every single note to every one of the other notes), we could say we have mastered the fingering technique on the instrument. Let’s get started!

We’re using Herbert L. Clarke’s Second Study for our technical workouts this semester. Here is the pattern:Clarke_Second StudyOnce memorized, this exercise is a great way to work on velocity in all keys. Some of the patterns will feel easy, and some will be quite awkward to start. We’ve been in the habit of playing the pattern the first time at a slow tempo, then picking up the speed on the repeat. In some cases, it’s a good idea to repeat the pattern multiple times at different tempos. As Clarke advised, “REMEMBER that to improve, one must master difficulties each day.”

Practicing slowly

Many great performers have much to say about practicing slowly. Orchestral musicians especially have the habit of setting the metronome at a slow speed (maybe half tempo) and gradually increasing the tempo a notch at a time to eventually bring a difficult passage up to full speed. Since flawless accuracy is the goal, so many repetitions ultimately pay off.

One concern, though, is that if we don’t pay attention while practicing slowly, we really don’t improve very much. Great athletes practice complex plays or strategic movements in “slow motion” in order to analyze precisely where every part of the body must be in order to perfectly execute the maneuver. Just moving slowly isn’t enough–mindful technical analysis at a slow tempo is the goal.

So, practice a challenging passage slowly. Pay attention to every movement of your fingers. Notice where glitches occur, then back out and try again in order to “fix” the problem. If this passage is like the pattern a wide receiver will run to evade the defender and make a spectacular catch in the end zone, every footstep will be carefully mapped. The angle of the body, the position of the hands, and the gaze of the eyes all will be a part of the design.


On the bassoon, complex fingering patterns and movements combine for every interval. Become sensitive to how every accurate fingering feels so that you may be able to recognize errors. Choreograph the passage and learn where you need to focus your concentration. Where do you need to be looking? Make the most of your “slow motion” practice in order to perfect even the most difficult music. bumblebee