About Me

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Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

GRAM Variations - Part 3 (and 4)

This entry is a followup to  GRAM Variations Part 1, and Part 2.  Having dealt with Groupings and Rhythms, try changing up the Articulations.  I find it very helpful to take a difficult passage of more or less slurred notes and to temporarily practice it as staccato.  This type of articulation gives extra clarity and purpose to the individual notes.  As with the other variations, the sky is the limit.  The added benefit to this type of practice is that it is likely to improve your articulation, while working on something else.

The "M" in GRAM is for Metronome.  If you are a serious musician, you need a Dr. Beat-style metronome.  The flexibility that this little machine provides makes it well worth the price.  For extra audibility, I run mine through the stereo system in my studio.  At any rate, a cheap metronome simply won't allow you to do some of the things that I am about to recommend.

The traditional approach to using the metronome has the click on the pulse, so quarter notes in 4/4 time, for example.  Especially at slower tempos, an extra level of subdivision can help you stay in time.  Try having the metronome click 16th notes while you play 8th notes.  When this is comfortable, set the metronome to click only on the syncopated 16th subdivisions, so that you play the 8th notes into silence, while listening for the internal backbeat.

As you work through a complex passage, experiment with different ways of using the metronome.  I like to set the metronome to click at very wide intervals, to test how well I can stay in tempo with only occasional assistance.  In a measure of 16th notes, set the metronome to only click on beat 1.  What if you set the metronome to only click on beat 1 of every other measure?  Try the metronome only on beat 2, or on second subdivision of alternating beats.  Use the loop function on the metronome to set up all kinds of crazy situations.

By starting with a lot of subdivision, and slowly reducing towards the vanishing point, we develop rhythmic independence and stability.  I have heard the argument that the metronome is a crutch, and while I generally disagree with this assertion, the type of practice outlined above easily moves in the opposite direction.  Rather than leaning on the metronome, you can use it like the training wheels on a bicycle, progressively relying more on your internal clock.

The next time you are stuck on a difficult piece of music, and you can feel the Practice Monster rising, take a breath, center yourself, and try some GRAM variations!

Monday, May 30, 2011

If it was easy . . .

We all know that mastery is difficult to achieve.  It takes thousands of hours of hard work.  Don't kid yourself about the challenges that you face; if it was easy, everyone would be a master!  When those long-term challenges are overwhelming, take refuge in your commitment to your daily practice.  We make the long climb in little steps . . . just keep climbing.

Be honest with yourself about your level of commitment, and focus on the work at hand.  It is normal to be frustrated, but channel that energy into moving forward, even when it feels like you are standing still.  The integrity of your overall preparation depends entirely on the humble, little hours of faithful practice.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The brain is responsible for the body

Sometimes our desire to improve gets ahead of our physical capabilities.  Good practice will regularly push the limits of our skills, but we must also take care of our physical health.  A healthy body can only be maintained with a healthy mind.

Practice Monster has never heard of tendonitis, and he could care less about things like pinched nerves and repetitive motion injury.  Getting carried away can be a deep and meaningful experience, but injury is a steep price to pay.

It is always a good idea to break up long practice sessions with little breaks.  Try some type of physical exercise, like a sport, yoga, Alexander technique, or whatever you find interesting.  Most importantly, listen to your body.  Practicing in pain is a very bad idea, highly habit forming, and a sure way to summon the monster.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Practice Monster Power Up: Rampage Mode

Whether your discipline is music performance or building electronic circuits, or whatever, you can probably think back to a time when practice was fun.  Unfortunately, undertaking serious study has a way of killing a lot of the wonder from earlier experiences in the craft, replacing it with frustration and disappointment.

Despite the seriousness of pursuing perfection, we must keep that wide-eyed little kid from our past alive!  In reality, the version of ourselves that loves to play is just another side of the Practice Monster.  If we keep the beast well fed and let him run free once in awhile, he will be less likely to misbehave.  The monster is a tremendous source of energy, and it can be used for help, or for harm.

Enter rampage mode.  Pick something that you love to do, something that is not necessarily "easy," but something that you have learned well and enjoy.  Have at it!  Forget about everything except the sheer joy of playing.  The monster will melt into that part of you that made you want to study in the first place.

Don't overindulge, but think of the occasional rampage as a fancy dessert . . . it's not on your diet, but life is too short to miss out on a well-deserved treat.  Practice Monster will be in a good mood, which means more productive practice down the road. So go ahead and POWER UP!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Right Key, Wrong Key, Right Key

Every instrument offers certain challenges that are intrinsic to its mechanism and design.  Practice Monster is easily angered by things he doesn't understand . . . like physics.    In awkward keys, or uncomfortable parts of the horn, even a modest passage of music can create serious problems for the performer.  Aside from the technical challenges, basic musicality is frequently compromised when our attention shifts to the distractions of technique.

I was lucky to attend a masterclass given by legendary flutist (and practice master), Trevor Wye.  He addressed this issue with an approach that I have come to think of as "right key, wrong key, right key."  Simply put, move the passage into an easier key with the goal of performing it as musically as possible.  Temporarily free from the added mechanical challenges, aim for perfection, and listen for details of phrasing that you may have missed before.  After a brief session in the "wrong key," return to the original transposition.  In my experience, the results are frequently instantaneous.  Remember, listening is the most important musical technique of them all.  The best musicians can push the limits of their fingers and their ears at the same time (and this is more difficult than it seems).

Besides the obvious concept of moving a half-step away, or into a less complex key signature, try playing in a different register.  If the passage crosses the break, try moving it into a key that stays in one register.  It can also be musically useful to shift only portions of the overall passage, to keep everything in the same octave, or register.  Be creative while you work, and the monster will be soothed.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Tracking the monster (practice log)

Keeping a practice log is an easy way of measuring the quantity, and quality, of our work.  A good journal should have just enough detail to adequately provide tools for long-term self-assessment.  An example of a single session might look like this:

Thursday May 11
15 minutes:  Long tone exercise, B-flat with drone (no tuner)
40 minutes:  Scale routine, all keys.  16ths @ quarter = 60, 70, 80, 90, 100, 110, and 120
30 minutes:  Etude #34, focussing on difficult passage with trills, still under-tempo
5 minutes: break (for smashing)
20 minutes:  music for upcoming band concert
30 minutes:  Improvising eighth notes on "All The Things You Are" (Q = 80, 90, 95)

Over time, your entries can be viewed as a summary of your practice.  If you are frustrated, for instance, that your articulation is sloppy, get a reality check from your log about exactly how much, and how often, you really practice articulations.  Usually, we discover that our problems are a result of relative neglect.  However, if you are practicing something a lot and without success, it is time to try a new way of addressing the problem.

Try making an additional note in your practice log whenever you get severely frustrated.  (Maybe you could draw a little picture of Practice Monster!)  Look for patterns that cause the monster to emerge, and build strategies for keeping your cool in the shed - more on that in a future post.

I require most of my students to email me their daily practice logs.  In the recently completed school year, I collected around 1,600 individual entries . . . well over 4,000 hours of practice.  Practice Monster SMASH!!!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

GRAM Variations - Part 2

Rhythmic variation is an excellent way to change up the process of learning difficult sequences.  Altering the rhythm is certainly related to grouping variation, but it is also possible to decrease (or increase) the rate of notes, or to move the emphasis within the meter.  Here are a few possibilities for your next practice session.


This is fairly self-explanatory.  If the passage is in 4/4, for example, change the meter to compound time.  The beat moves, but the proportional rhythm stays the same.  In other words, change eighth notes to triplets, or vice versa.

Ma-ry  /  had a  /  li-ttle  /  lamb


Ma-ry had  /  a li-ttle  /  lamb


In a passage that combines complex sequences of notes with tricky rhythms, try just playing the notes in straight eighth notes.  By eliminating the rhythmic complexity, the focus shifts directly to getting all the right notes.  Start slowly, and when the tempo reaches, or slightly surpasses the fastest subdivision of the goal, return to the original rhythm.  This same trick works in all triplets, groups of five, or any other static grouping.


This is a standard practice method used in etude and study books.  Say that the original rhythm is eight notes.  Go through a series of variations that explores the many ways that two notes can be spread across a single beat.  Two eighth notes could become dotted eighth + sixteenth, sixteenth + dotted eighth, quarter note triplet + eighth note triplet (or the reverse), swing eighth notes, or anything else that you can dream up.  Make up your own series of rhythmic variations and make it part of your routine.

These ideas are all very simple, but the concepts are widely applicable.  Scales and patterns could be practiced in long chains of different rhythms.  Try writing short rhythmic figures on slips of paper, shuffling them up, and then assembling a random series.  We are only limited by our own imaginations.

Monday, May 16, 2011

GRAM Variations - Part 1

When woodshedding difficult passages, it can be helpful to change aspects of the actual music, for practice purposes.  Remember these four variables mnemonically with GRAM:  Groupings, Rhythms, Articulations, and Metronome.


The human brain is very good at organizing stuff.  Babies put the blocks in one pile, stuffed animals in another.  We do the same thing with music.  We look for recognizable patterns and immediately implement the patterns into our thought process.  We see some notes from a scale, a skip upward, a set of three notes together, etc.  Practice Monster gets easily frustrated when we think too hard . . . but changing things up distracts him, thusly prolonging a successful practice session.

As an analogy, imagine that we were practicing Mary Had A Little Lamb.  The first groupings are:


Recite the words as they are grouped:  two syllables, two syllables, three syllables.  Now, imagine that we changed the grouping to 3, 2, and 2:


If you play an instrument, finger the notes as you recite the syllables, with appropriate breaks.  It will feel awkward at first, because the grouping is purposefully unnatural.  This exercise provides an opportunity to play the same sequence of notes, but with the mind grasping them in a different way.  Imagine playing the Prelude of the first Bach cello suite, but two notes at a time, and then in triple groupings.  The sound and feeling would be totally different, even though the sequence is the same.

I have found this technique particularly helpful in learning long strings of sixteenth notes.  By breaking the notes up into different groupings, and inserting rests to separate them, we divide a meal into manageable little bites.

Grouping variations can be practiced out of time (rubato), or with the metronome.  I like to start without a steady beat, and then introduce rigid time.  By practicing a variety of groupings, the mental process becomes more supple.  When we return to the original version of the excerpt, there should be a better sense of flow.

Stay tuned for more on GRAM Variations.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Stretch out with the Time Vulture

Many of my students complain that they don't have enough time to accomplish their daily practice goals.  My approach to this involves something called The Time Vulture.  Make a detailed schedule of your entire day, and look for potential dead time.  Then, descend and scavenge!

I recently had a student that was struggling to get through his assignments.  I challenged him to add 15 minutes to his usual 2 hour routine.  He was able to find that 15 minutes pretty easily, and used it to for additional scale practice.  In a single week, we both saw obvious results.

This only works if you are honest about what you do with your time, and make a real commitment to use that time every day.  How much open-ended time do we spend at the computer, texting, and watching television every day?  Even if a young student can stretch a 30 minute routine to 35 minutes, there will be measurable long-term benefits.

For perspective, a college student that increases their routine by 15 minutes, for just five days per week, will add over 17 hours of practice to a single semester . . .  Practice Monster SMASH!!!!

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Big Slowdown

When I was relatively young, my music teachers instructed me to practice difficult material slowly, and gradually increase the speed.  This is the standard method of learning, and it works very well.  Research has proven that the human neural network adapts itself to repetitive tasks by increasing the connectivity between appropriate neurons.  This is why we slowly progress from struggling to a state of "muscle memory."

Unfortunately, Practice Monster is an impatient beast.  He doesn't want us to do enough repetitions, and he pushes us to prematurely increase the speed.  By not spending enough time at the slow tempos, we introduce mistakes into the process, and worse still, we end up practicing these sloppy mistakes!  Here is a solution that I have used in my own practice.

Begin by selecting a manageable amount of difficult material, and set a tempo that is slow enough that you can reliably perform the excerpt without making any mistakes.  Once you have determined this tempo, begin by playing a few metronome clicks slower than the tempo you just set.  Play the excerpt ten times in a row, and do not allow a single mistake.  When you have played the selection ten times perfectly, move to an even slower tempo.  Continue this process until you are performing at a ridiculously slow speed.

At the slowest tempo imaginable, make sure that you are performing with a beautiful sound, perfect rhythm, and flawless technique.  In super slow-motion, focus all of your attention on the note ahead of the note you are on.  When you move, immediately start thinking about the next note.  Try thinking about the notes in groups of two, and think a full couplet ahead of where you are.  Whatever you do, resist the urge to speed up.  If you start making mistakes, go even slower.  Even if you play perfectly, continue to decrease in speed.

End a long session, as long as you can stand, by immediately moving back to the tempo that you started at.  If you have success, experiment to see how quickly you can play the material.  My experience has been that "the big slowdown" is more effective for building speed and muscle memory than the traditional method of incremental acceleration.  My hypothesis is that the brain has an easier time hard-wiring itself when we do the repetitions at very slow speeds.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Reprogram yourself with the "exaggerated opposite" approach

It is very difficult to simply "stop" poor technique.  When, despite our best efforts, we realize that we are still engaged in a negative habit, Practice Monster has a temper tantrum.  A far more effective method is to replace a bad habit with a good one.  I use this technique in my own practice, and in my teaching.  Here's an example of how it works.

Problem:  As the student plays into the high register of the saxophone, she stretches her body upward.  Even her eyebrows ascend, and the resulting tension makes the sound pinched and unpleasant.

Solution:  Begin by practicing ascending scales.  As the student ascends, she bends her knees and slightly squats downward.  She moves the eyebrows downward, relaxes the forehead, and focusses on doing exactly the opposite of what she did before.

In time, the student shifts towards thinking about the exaggerated opposite, without actually doing it.  After extensive practice, the student might be able to accomplish the desired result just by slightly bending the knees, or softening the muscles around the eyes.

This technique works because not doing something is abstract, but focussing attention on the exaggerated opposite gives a tangible target.  The undesirable habit is methodically replaced with a desirable one.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Monster loves it when you try to cram

Frantic, last-minute over-practicing is about the worst thing you can possibly do.  Practice Monster loves it when you cram.  He feasts on your fear.

Whenever I have a big performance coming up, I make sure that I am practicing at least four hours per day for the full month before the event.  I might schedule a specific number of measures per week, spread out over several months.  I try to have the entire program learned the month before, so I can focus on details and stamina in the weeks leading up to the concert.

It is of extreme importance that the basics routine is never abandoned.  A long session might be half fundamentals and half repertoire.  Bailing on basics weakens the foundation that you are building upon.  Would a basketball player only practice dunks during the regular season?  Only if the goal is injuries and missed free throws!

The luxury of a long preparation period isn't always a reality, but we can take steps to avoid the frenzy of "crunch time."  A practice schedule that includes a solid routine of fundamentals will keep the beast at bay.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Disorganized practice is an investment in long-term failure

I can remember not being able to play an etude, and trying to solve the problem by "just practicing it more."  Aimlessly performing the difficult music over and over again, only cementing in the problems.  The most important practice habit of all is to have clearly defined goals.

When you can feel Practice Monster coming to the surface, take a break to ask yourself, "What am I supposed to be practicing right now?"  If you can't answer that question in one short sentence, you should evaluate what you are working on, and find a way to clearly state the goal.  Try stating the problem, and then some simple solutions:

Problem:  I cannot play the measure with the ornament without losing the rhythm.

Solution:  Practice playing without the ornament, and then slowly add the various elements of the ornament, one by one.

Practice Monster thrives on self-sabotage, and disorganization sets us up to fail before we have begun.  Clarity of purpose keeps us on task, and the time spent working goes quickly and smoothly.

Unstructured practice can be fun too, and for many of us, it can be an important part of the creative process.  (More on "Rampage Mode" in a future post.)  Just remember to keep asking yourself, "What am I practicing, right now?"

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Chronicles of Practice Monster

Welcome to the world of Practice Monster.  Make no mistake, I am not The Practice Monster!  He is a fictional character that personifies the way we obstruct our own progress with self-sabotage, anger, and surrender.  Practice Monster has the potential to devour us, but we can learn to control his energy and use him like an engine for improvement.

In this blog, I will discuss the various ways that my relationship with practice has evolved over the years.  Topics will be mainly geared towards musicians, but the concepts will be applicable across many disciplines.  We can be happier in everything that we do, the moment we begin to associate work with joy.

I welcome your questions and comments.