About Me

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

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Have a Mantra

In one of my first posts (disorganized practiced . . . ), I wrote about the importance of keeping practice sessions mentally organized by continually asking, "What am I practicing, right now?"  The idea of mantra is at the heart of any good form of practice.  "What am I practicing?" can become a powerful mantra in itself, but it can also be an even more powerful, permanent cue for more specific mantras.  

Most of my students struggle to remember to use good air support.  At the beginning of a practice session, it might be helpful to repeat a phrase over and over again, such as "use my air, use my air, use my air."  Intensely connect the recitation with the feeling of an engaged diaphragm, and say it over and over again.  Then, in the course of regular practice, stop at measured intervals and recite the mantra again.  Try to think the mantra in your head as you are performing.

I have many little mantras that run in my head, almost like computer programs that run in the background.  LOOSE WRISTS LOOSE WRISTS LOOSE WRISTS . . . HEAD UP HEAD UP HEAD UP HEAD UP . . . AIR AIR AIR AIR AIR AIR.  These mantras are so intimately connected with my practice, they have transcended the words and have become pure constructs of thought.  This works much in the way that an unfamiliar object eventually becomes so familiar, we almost don't notice it, even if we use it every day.  (You can look at a chair and not have to think the word "chair," to know that is a chair!)

Like everything else, it only works if you practice, and the harder you practice, the better it works.

I'm taking a few weeks off of the blog, but please keep your comments and suggestions coming!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Make the Monster Your Servant

Have you ever had a burst of anger in the middle of a frustrating practice session?  When Practice Monster takes over, we lose momentum, and we might even become unable to progress.  There is a better way to deal with the situation.  Check out this excerpt from my May 2011 column in *Saxophone Journal.  (If you don't subscribe to SJ, please consider doing so by visiting www.dornpub.com.)

*Saxophone Journal has ceased publication.  Back issues are available from the website.
To read my new column, please consider subscribing to Saxophone Today.*


Without fail, the Practice Monster phenomenon occurs as a result of frustration and unrewarding practice.  He is the embodiment of sustained overreaching.  This is important information, as it offers a clear path to summoning the creature.  For this reason, it is a good idea to begin each practice session with something familiar.  Start with some long tones and embouchure flexibility exercises, to awaken the muscles and the mind, without overtaxing either.  Progressively move towards more challenging material in a consciously organized manner, saving the most challenging work for about two-thirds of the way through the total session.  For example, in a four hour session, the most difficult work should begin about 2.5 hours in.  The next part requires some experience, and a good amount of finesse.  The idea is too push just hard enough to feel Practice Monster surfacing.  This is a delicate balance, for if your practice isn’t challenging enough, you won’t awaken the monster at all, but if you push too hard, you won’t be able to continue.  Learn to go as far as you can without losing control, and just when you are about to reaching the point of no return, take a short break.  Get a drink, go to the bathroom, get a breath of fresh air – whatever it takes to briefly calm down and refocus.  You shouldn’t have to rest for very long; just long enough to stave off the impending disaster.

After the break, return to practicing, and preferably go back to the difficult material that almost set you off.  With a new sense of calm, practice the material much more slowly and carefully.  If the subject is technical, dramatically decrease the tempo and relax as much as possible.  Turn the emotional energy that you just felt into cool-headed purposefulness.  Tell yourself, “This is very difficult, but I can make progress if I go slowly and take my time.”  After a reasonable duration, end the practice session with some more familiar material that is fun to play.  . . . .  Whenever possible, end the practice session with a feeling of accomplishment, feeling good about yourself.

©2011  David J. Pope


Practice Monster can be a constructive force, if we use him as a signal to take a break and refocus.  The harder we push our own limits, the easier it becomes to give up.  If we turn the energy of our own anger into calm determination, we get closer to our true potential.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Air Goes ZOOM, Part 2

Once you have mastered the techniques from my previous post, it's time to apply the concepts more deeply.    It is probably counterproductive to go on without mastering the basic idea of "powering" a single finger movement with air, so take your time and don't get ahead of yourself.

In sixteenth notes, play a G major pentachord . . . the first five notes of a G major scale, up and down.  As you play the notes, imagine that your air is flowing through your fingers.  Transfer the idea of pneumatic saxophone keys into pneumatic fingers.  Repeat the pattern, and focus your mind on completely relaxing your hands and fingers (and your entire body, for that matter).  The only tension should be in your diaphragm.  Keep your body inflated and concentrate on feeling the flow of the air, and imagining that it extends outward into your hands.  As your fingers move more quickly, draw on the airflow (real and imagined).

There are two primary purposes of this exercise.  Firstly, the concept reinforces a relaxed technique: relaxed fingers.  The second purpose is to mentally strengthen the connection between fingers and air.  In reality, the air is certainly not powering the fingers, but remember that great air fixes many of our problems.  Relaxed fingers, powerful air.

Now get practicing . . . ZOOM!!!!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Air Goes ZOOM!

This is an exercise I recently started working on, and I'm very happy with the results so far.  I'm always looking for ways to make smoother phrases.  This means we must avoid slamming down the keys, and we have to keep the air supported as the notes change.  I call this "the air goes zoom."

Play a middle G, and focus on relaxed fingers and fast moving air.  As you lift your ring finger to play an A, imagine that the finger is being blown upward by your air.  Repeat this process, slowly moving to a B.  In the beginning, you will probably slightly "puff" the air as the fingers move.  Once this is accomplished without effort, imagine that the air column is constantly pressurized, and that simply relaxing a finger will cause that key to pop up.  At first, only work on finger exchanges that "release" keys.  Once this is mastered, try imaging the air flowing into your fingers to gently pop the keys downward.

Work through the exercise slowly, and really internalize the feeling that you are controlling the fingers with a rapidly moving, highly pressurized column of air.  Imagine that the keys are pneumatic, and that the fingers mostly get out of the way of the air.  Try to feel your diaphragm pushing at the keys.  Feel the air moving under your fingers, even through your fingers.

In time, the fingers will become increasingly relaxed, resulting in a fast and nimble technique.  Keep the potential energy of the springs in mind, and avoid squeezing or clamping down.  Whenever there are technical problems, first move your attention to the airstream.  Imagine the air rushing through the instrument, literally powering the music.  Each time you imagine this, think the phrase, "the air goes ZOOM."

Monday, June 6, 2011

Practice Versus Performance

Students sometimes ask me how to balance demanding perfection in the practice room with accepting the inevitable mistakes that happen in performance.  If we forgive ourselves for making mistakes, doesn't that lead to complacency?

Remember that performance relies entirely on the integrity of the preparation.  Practice Monster is a necessary part of that process, but he has no place on the stage.  I have a cartoon on my studio door that shows a young student asking his teacher, "If practice makes perfect, and nobody's perfect, does that mean nobody is practicing?"  Of course not!  But if we can wrap our heads around the deep meaning of that little newspaper comic, we see the practice/performance paradox.

Never tolerate mistakes in your practice.  Stay organized and on task, and let Practice Monster occasionally fuel the fire that keeps you coming back for more.  Prepare with ferocious tenacity, intensely focussing on the tiny little details.  When the time comes to perform, soften your focus to the see the whole process.  Be the friendly Performance Monster, sharing the ultimate expression of your work with the audience.  Don't worry about mistakes!  If you have spent enough time and energy preparing, the performance will be the best that you can offer, and that's all that matters.

Be critical at the appropriate times, especially as you prepare, and as you eventually evaluate the final result, but don't rob yourself of the joyfulness that we can experience on the stage.  There is nothing like the feeling of a fun performance, and if you enjoy yourself and shrug off the mistakes, your audience will have fun too!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Practice for love

Please, do yourself a favor and listen to Jonathan Franzen's 18 minute commencement address for Kenyon College:


We love music, which is why we are drawn to practice it, but real practice is emotionally painful.  We come face to face with our weaknesses and shortcomings.  As Franzen says, pain hurts, but it doesn't kill . . . pain is a part of real life, and real love.

Practice Monster doesn't understand the complex relationship between pain and joy, but as humans, we can never forget that love is only possible because of those polar opposites.  Without darkness, there is no light.

So practice because you love to practice.  Play because you love to play.  Forget about the risks, see the pain for what it is, and be grateful that you are alive.  You don't have to "like" your work, but you'd better love it.