By Noah M.
Amidst our society of “Get Rich Quick” schemes and “Easy Ways to Become Better At ____,” it can seem as though actually having to do work to reap benefits is a thing of the past. This pretty much seems too good to be true - and it absolutely is. Practicing one’s instrument is no different. It takes work and dedication to become good at anything and that doesn’t exclude musical performance. It can often seem too hard and totally not worth the effort, which may lead one to even quit playing their instrument. The point is this: becoming good at your instrument is hard and takes time, patience, and above all, practice. It’s that last part, however, that separates those who try to be good at their instrument and those who are. Be you a professional player or a beginner, you will benefit from learning how to practice more effectively. That is exactly what I aim to teach you to do.
When you are having trouble with a particular section of music, it is important to keep in mind that you are likely not the first person to have ever played it. If you are a younger player, perhaps in middle school, there are many high school students who would love to help you practice. Regardless of your age, it may help you to find a recording online of someone playing your part. When all else fails, seeking help from your band director is not at all shameful and they would be glad to help you. Otherwise, you may be able to find other experienced players to help you. There is pretty much no situation where you can’t find anybody to help you play a part you’re having trouble with. There will always be someone better than you and thus always someone that can help you.
Practicing on your own is the most readily available method of practice and the above should be used if you feel you need help. To start you off practicing, it is important to warm up correctly. While it may be tempting to jump right into the BUMP (Big, Ugly Music Problem), pacing yourself and warming up will make the practice you do later much more effective and safe. Just as you wouldn’t run a race without first stretching, so too should you not play without warming up your embouchure, hands, and breathing. If you already know the areas that you would like to focus your practice on, then you may start after warming up. If you think you are just generally having trouble with an entire song, run through the piece and circle any problem areas that you encounter. These will be the areas that you target, plus it may help you to spot any repeating rhythmic or melodic patterns. You will need to know what you want the piece to sound like in the end. As they say, “keep the end in mind.” The best way to ensure that you know what your excerpt is supposed to sound like is to check with another student. If you are for some reason not able to do so, you can always use websites/programs like Flat (flat.io) or Musescore (musescore.org) and input the section of music you are having trouble with to hear it. This should only be used as a last resort and you should never publish/claim ownership of what you write.
Music students today have it much easier than music students of the past. While playing hasn’t really changed, the tools you can use have. I find it to be very advantageous to record oneself. You may not always notice all of your mistakes - or may notice ones that aren’t there - until you can hear yourself without having to worry about playing. Plus, when recording yourself, you can replay your playing as many times as you want to hear it. There may be many aspects of your take that you don’t notice until you’ve heard it a few times. Along with recording yourself, you can use technology to tune yourself and train with tempo. There are a variety of apps that one can download that will help you to become a better musician. One that I use to help me practice is Soundcorset’s Tuner and Metronome app. It has many of the functions that I reference in this article and others.
Once you have warmed up, identified the areas you want to hit, and know what it’s supposed to sound like, it’s time to get down with the practicing. When practicing, there’s really two things you can do to make the music easier for you to learn without changing it for the worse. You can either slow it down or chunk the music into smaller sections. Practicing with a metronome will help you to keep tempo. Keep lowering the tempo until you find one where you are comfortable playing the piece without making significant mistakes. Once you feel comfortable playing your excerpt at a tempo slower than it is meant to, you can increase it by 2 to 4 bpm at a time until you reach the tempo asked of you. Each time you increase, don’t increase it further until you can play it at the current tempo without significant mistakes.
You may find a different method of making the music easier for you to be more desirable. To chunk, or shorten the music into more manageable portions, is a good way to really focus your practice on a very specific part that you find to be difficult. Shorten the music into a small enough part that you can play without making significant mistakes. There is no limit to how small you can make your practice, even if you are having trouble switching between two notes and just need to focus on their interval. Gradually broaden your scope until you can play the excerpt without any significant mistakes. The good thing about both of these methods is that they can and generally are used in tandem with one another. Finding a workable tempo and scope will use the best of both worlds and prepare you for pieces that you play later in your musical career.
It can seem like music is just a series of never-ending challenges with no payoff of becoming better at handling those challenges. This is why the this last step of effective practice is the most important: enjoy what you are playing. There is something that the music you are playing is trying to convey and to receive and be able to echo that message through your playing is something that makes playing music great. Understanding what makes a piece of music great makes you appreciate it more. Look for what makes the music you are playing good and capitalize on that. Do your part to understand and play what the composer meant and I assure you that you will find the enthusiasm to practice your next BUMP and countless more.
Noah is an 11th grade trombone player in the Northridge band program. He plays in the concert band, marching band, jazz band, and pep band. Noah also participates in Ohio Model United Nations, is an active member of the choir program and plays trombone with the New Albany Winds.