Practicing is a very personal thing. Everyone at some point has to take time to reflect on how they learn and what rituals, materials, and situations work best for oneself. So I’m not going to tell you how to practice. I’m going to tell you how I practice and what my thoughts are on the process and purpose of practicing. Take what you will from it.

Like most adults, I have little time to practice. This used to bother me a lot; now it only makes me a wee bit annoyed. When I was in junior high and high school, I would put in two or three consecutive hours of practicing. I thought that was how you were supposed to do it. When I got to college, I had less time to practice and more demands on me. I marveled at the performance majors (I was a music education major) who could log in six or more straight hours of practicing. How did they do it? I couldn’t last that long mentally, let alone physically. Long after I finished my undergraduate studies, I came to the realization that there are many ways to practice that will yield good results, without necessarily having to spend six or more hours in a row practicing. Having said that, I do believe that to be a "major player," (I don’t consider myself quite at that level) you have to spend a at least a few years (3-5) of putting in 4 to 8 hours a day of practice.

The biggest practicing revelation came to me around age 24: you do not have to have marathon practice sessions; you can get as much, if not more, work done when you break it up. An hour here, ten minutes there can streamline your practicing efforts and make for some very efficient work. There are two components to learning to play music, a physical one and a mental one. I find that most of the frustration in practicing comes when your brain gets it, but your fingers do not. This is usually the point where people will play and play and play until they get it right, darn it!! I know a few people for whom this way of practicing is effective (one of whom does now have an associate principal chair in a major international orchestra). I had to come to terms with the fact that this does not work for me. If I get frustrated or angry, I have to stop. And that’s okay. It used to bother me, but I realized that wasn’t a very useful reaction. There are times where stamina is an issue. If you are doing a demanding recital, which means about an hour’s worth of tough music, you want to know that you can make it through without your sound and technique going bad. This means that you are going to have to spend some part of your practicing building stamina, playing for long periods of time. In my own experience, I have found that with the little practicing I do (half-hour to two hours per day, at least five days per week, I can still play for about two and a half to three hours before my body starts to get very angry, which I do a few times per week in the subway. If you do play for extended amounts of time, take ten seconds every fifteen minutes or so to stretch, or your body will be really angry.

My undergraduate flute teacher, Joanne Tanner, used to say all the time, "Many small make a great." It drove me up the wall. Even more so, because I knew she was right, but I didn’t know how to apply it. While I think she had me wrongly pegged as intelligent-but-lazy (I have my moments, but overall I’m not so lazy), she could see that I have a lot of energy, I like things fast paced, and I desperately needed to learn to be patient. The trick was figuring out a way to accomplish what I needed to accomplish but still feel like things were moving along. I figured out, again long after my undergraduate days were behind me, that the many small make a great method was the way to go. Do a little bit of a lot of things on a consistent basis, and the work will get done. You don’t have to spend an hour on double-tonguing, for example; just keep hacking away at it and it will get better. The progress may seem slow at first, but it will happen.

You should be able to verbally explain in explicit detail what you physically need to do to get the sound that you want. There are many people who do manage to learn by osmosis – they absorb by listening and watching, which is great. But even if you never want to teach, having the verbal resource will help you approach your practicing with some sense. If words fail you completely, then draw pictures or do an interpretive dance. Practicing effectively requires developing an acute awareness of what you do, so that you can make sure you are doing what you need to and ceasing to do what you don’t need to do. Then once you’ve figured out what needs to be done, you have to repeat it enough times for your muscles to feel comfortable with it. Clear, verbal descriptions of what you do will help you gain the awareness you need.

I used to think I had nothing in common with jocks. While my small-motor skills are rather good, my large-motor skills are rather bad. In other words, I’m an uncoordinated klutz who isn’t very good at sports, but I’m very good with my hands. My lack of sporty talent made me a big geek in the eyes of the school jocks, of course, and I bought into that persona for a long time. But practicing an instrument is quite a bit like training for a game or a marathon. You can’t just run a marathon tomorrow if you’ve never prepared for it. Actually, the first guy who did that – the messenger who ran from Marathon to Athens (?) to tell the people the Spartans had been defeated – dropped dead after delivering his message. People don’t drop dead after marathons anymore because they practice, in a many-small-make-a-great way. Learning to play a sport involves not just learning the rules of the game, but also putting your body through a lot of repetitive, routine movements, so that when you are in the heat of the game, your muscles will know what to do. When you practice long tones, scales, chords, and snippets of repertoire over and over and over again, you are basically doing what an athlete does. It takes a lot of repetition for your muscles to remember what your brain is telling them is their job. People who have "talent" seem to assimilate information faster, but even the talented have to do this kind of work. It’s not always the most fun aspect of practicing, but it does enable you to make whatever kind of music you want to. When you don’t have to think so hard about your muscles, you can concentrate on making music.

I am at a point in my musical life where I actually enjoy doing the grunt work. I like practicing scales and patterns and gradually getting them to be faster and more fluent. If you don’t have the patience for this now, then only do a little bit at a time. There are other things to work on.

Three things that I am working on now that I didn’t as a student are memorizing, transposition, and improvisation. You can never start too early on any of these. For some reason, it is understood that violinists and pianists perform regularly from memory. This is not really expected of any other instrument. I don’t know why. I am finding that even just attempting to memorize a piece increases my understanding of it and my ability to read it more accurately. For transposition, I am slowly working my way through Robert Ottman’s Music for Sight-Singing, transposing each little tune into all twelve keys. The nice thing about this book is that it’s arranged by harmonic content, so that you start off with relatively simple melodies and work your way towards more difficult ones. They are short enough to memorize in one sitting (at least for me; it might be harder if you’ve only been playing for a year, or your short term memory isn’t so great, but no matter…), so you can play the in the other keys by ear or by reading in different clefs, according to your experience.

Improvisation is a slightly different beast, and I have two other pages dedicated to this topic. Both of these are from a jazz standpoint, but I’m working on gaining the ability to improvise outside of (or within?) any particular style considerations. I love jazz and I think a jazz education is a sound one, but for those of us who don’t come from that background, improvising can be really intimidating. It shouldn’t be, but it often is. I suspect, too, that many people who are, say, accomplished classical musicians, feel like they are starting over when they try to learn jazz improvisation. I usually don’t mind that feeling, but many people do. I think it’s possible to use what you already know to get at what you don’t know. Why not learn to improvise Mozartean cadenzas, for example? I find that I can imagine a classical cadenza or one of those wacky short adagios you find in Baroque sonatas rather clearly in my head and I am often able to sing it, as well. The problem, for me, is making that connection between what I can hear in my head to my instrument. I’m hoping that working on the above mentioned transposition exercises will help. There’s also nothing wrong with singing out loud and then figuring out how to play it, flubs and all. Since my strength is hearing things in my head and writing them down directly to paper, I actually avoid doing that, other than when I am composing. I already know that I can transcribe well and can sight-read well; these skills are good and useful, but they overwhelm the ability to directly play what I hear in my head. The basic idea here is: learn to improvise in the musical language you are comfortable with, then branching into new languages will not seem so much like starting over.

I’m working on a improvisation primer of sorts, that doesn’t rely on notation or styles. I’m sure someone else has done this before, though I haven’t seen it. The advice I’ve always been given has been "just do it!" This is truly great advice – I’m not being sarcastic – but it’s easy to be afraid to go for it when you just don’t know where to start. Some of us like structure, some of us like to be told what to do, some of us like to feel like we’re "right." I think it takes some of the worry out of improvising (so many choices! eeeek!) so you can concentrate on making music. Start simple, find something you’re comfortable with and keep pushing yourself into new situations. You will gradually find it easier and easier to "just do it."

Those are three basic, but large-scale musicianship skills. In order for those to effective for you, you have to work on the basic mechanics of your playing technique. In many ways they are reciprocal: technique will improve your memorizing, transposing, and improving, and those "big three" will improve your technique. At the core of your technique is your sound. Again, be able to explain what you need to do physically to get that sound – even on piano, the color of your sound requires different ways of pressing the keys and pedaling. If you can’t do this, talk to people whose sound you like. Ask them to explain what they do. Keep asking until you get an explanation you can work with; i.e., you try it out yourself and it works. I say this repeatedly and urgently because I went through a long period (say, my first 17 years of playing) of not knowing how to get my best possible sound, not having anyone to explain it to me, and being penalized for it in many ego-crushing ways (my personal favorite was being told that I didn’t have my priorities straight). Holy frustration, it was awful! When I did find a teacher who could explain these things in plain language, and who was patient, giving me gentle reminders as I figured things out, it changed everything about my playing. Suddenly, all the musical ideas that I knew I had (although I was told by another teacher that, alas, I wasn’t naturally musical…), were coming out, full force. Once I had control over my sound, I could reproduce with my instrument how I thought the music should sound.

When you practice (just suggesting, of course), whether you have two hours or ten minutes to work with, you should spend most of your time doing the most difficult things. This is what creates progress if you are in the learning stages and what keeps your chops in shape if you’re already fairly accomplished. Make a list of things to do. This will help you use your practice time wisely. I usually change my practice routine every four to six months or so, to keep things interesting. Now I am working on a huge, long-term project that will take a long time (forever?) to get through, so I’ve tried to set it up to have a lot of variation, something I value highly as an antidote to boredom. I will elaborate on the nature of this project shortly. Your list should be comprised of basic technical things. For example, my present list (as a flutist; lists will certainly vary with other instruments) is as follows:

•single tonguing
•double tonguing
•triple tonguing
•super quiet
•whistle tones
•large leaps
•flutter tonguing
•circular breathing

These are all things that require muscle-work and training and they are the types of skills that go away if you don’t visit them regularly. In conjunction with these physical techniques there are musical things you need to work on, patterns (scales and arpeggios/chords), intonation, and tone color (including vibrato). The physical techniques work very well with the patterns; you can accomplish two things at once! For my big "I’m going to work on my basics and learn new scales" project, I put together a huge list of scales, another huge list of patterns (culled from method books, pieces, and my own little head), and my list of techniques. You can look at the .pdf file. I just do a few of them every day. For example, I’ll work on techniques 1-4, using a major scale applied to patterns 18-21. The next day I would work on techniques 5-8 and patterns 19-22. When I do them all with the major scale, I’ll move on to a new scale.

Because of their special nature, I have different exercises for circular breathing and multiphonics. I can run through my transposing, memorizing, scale/technique work, and circular breathing in about an hour (without spacing out…). I can also easily break it up, since it’s simple to keep track of my regimen.

While I haven’t done this in a while, I do have a regimen for practicing intonation. I had to figure this one out myself. Again, I’m sure someone else has written down suggestions for intonation practice, but I never found it in a normal instrumental method book. Actually, I was rather influenced by W. A. Mathieu’s writings in The Listening Book and Harmonic Experience, so someone has written something down. None of my teachers, strangely enough, ever relayed to me a method for working on intonation, other than "work with a tuner."

This is what I’ve come up with: Get yourself a tuner that drones any pitch you like. An A-440 is useful, but you’ll need more. When you tune, you are listening for difference tones: when two (or more) different pitches occur at the same time, their waves interact and create other waves (that’s an attempt at keeping the explanation simple). For unisons and octaves you’re listening for the absence of difference tones (more likely to be perceived as beats or pulses than an actual pitch), and for any other interval you use the difference tone as the indicator for whether you are in tune or not. Difference tones are easier to hear between like instruments, for example they’ll be easier to hear with two flutes than with a flute and clarinet. I have heard people complain that the sound emitted by an electronic tuner with droning capabilities is awful, but I have found that it makes great difference tones with the flute, perhaps because the flute is as close to a sine-wave as you’ll get with any pitched instrument (save whistling, apparently). You can also get together with someone who plays your instrument and who can keep their sound very even (this can be an issue with winds, of course). Bowed strings can use an open string as a drone, too.

Set your drone source to any note within the range of your instrument and start by practicing long unisons. Work to eliminate any beating. If you can’t hear any beating ever, either you are always amazingly in tune (unlikely), or you are experiencing one of the following: you are not playing at the same dynamic level as your drone, or you just aren’t sensitized to it yet. To sensitize your ears to beating, slowly make your pitch higher or lower as much as you can. Listen for that ugly-yet-intriguing wah-wah or buzz in your ears. You may even feel it in your head, more than you seem hear it. As you get closer to matching the drone, the beats will slow down, as you move further away, the beats will speed up, even to a buzz. Practice being in and out of tune; this will build up sensitivity and flexibility. Alvin Lucier has some fantastic pieces based on being in and out of tune with a unison drone. I highly recommend them. Once you are able to match a unison throughout the range of your instrument, then move on to octaves, again working to eliminate beats.

The next interval you should work on is the perfect fifth.

This merits a short discussion. Fifths on the piano are not in tune; in fact the whole piano is "out of tune." Some people prefer piano-tuning (called equal temperament) over natural tuning (called just temperament) in all "classical" music. Some cultures and composers prefer other tunings. I’m a big fan of using anything you can wrap your ears around. Practically speaking, in terms of "classical" music, it is very possible to combine both equal and just temperaments. I think just temperaments are easier to hear because the difference tones tune very well; you can (learn to) easily hear them lock into place. Intonation is not about being right; it’s about being sensitive and flexible. Anyone who’s played with someone (other than a pianist, organist, or percussionist) who insists that they are the only one "in tune" and they are not going to budge, knows how frustrating that can be. By learning just intonation with drones and equal temperament by playing with pianists on a regular basis, you will become duly sensitive and flexible, indeed.

Back to our regularly scheduled program: When you play a perfect fifth above a drone, listen for the difference tone sounding an octave below the drone. For example, if the drone is an A and you play the E above that, you can hear a difference tone an octave below the A. Bend your note and listen for the difference note moving in and out of tune with the drone. Keep working on this until you can hear it and control it.

Next: major thirds. The difference tone will sound two octaves below the drone. Note that if, for example, you play a major third below the drone, the difference tone will be two octaves below you. Major thirds on the piano are sharper than in just intonation.

Minor thirds: the difference tone will sound a major third plus two octaves below the drone, forming a major triad with you and the drone. Minor thirds on the piano are much flatter than in just intonation.

Perfect fourths: the difference tone will sound two octaves below your pitch.

Minor sixths: the difference tone will sound a major sixth below, creating a major triad in second inversion with you and the drone.

Major sixths: the difference tone will sound a perfect fifth below the drone, creating a major triad with you and the drone.

The consonant intervals are much easier to tune in just intonation than the dissonant intervals. Just intonation is derived from ratios within the harmonic series. In the harmonic series there are a few choices for dissonant intervals, where as for the above intervals there’s only one. Below are the difference tones based on ratios within the harmonic series. If this sounds like gobbledy-gook, that’s okay. I’m not going to explain the whole thing here because there are lots of books, websites, and people that can tell you all about it. (If you’d like me to recommend any, email me.)

Major seconds: the difference tone will sound three octaves below the drone. This is a toughy to hear in general and impossible to hear below E3/F#3. Side note: The Mathieu book mentioned above has exercises that can help you to hear the difference between a 9/8 major second and a 8/7 major second. The latter is significantly wider than an equal tempered major second.

Minor seconds: the difference tone sounds a perfect fifth plus four octaves below the drone. Obviously, here it’s completely impractical to use difference tones for the purpose of tuning. Just minor seconds are ever so slightly lower than equal tempered minor seconds.

Minor sevenths: the difference tone will sound a major third below the drone.

Major sevenths: the difference tone will sound something like a major second (with a ratio of 8/7) below the drone.

The tritone: this is probably the most difficult. An equal tempered tritone has an approximate ratio of 37:22, creating a difference tone that sounds roughly a tritone below the drone. Just intonation differentiates between augmented fourths and diminished fifths and offers several options:
• 11:8 produces a difference tone approx. perfect fourth plus an octave below the drone.
• 25:18 produces a difference tone a (flat) major third plus an octave below the drone.
• 7:5 produces a difference tone a major third plus an octave below the drone.
• 45:32 produces a difference tone a (sharp) major third plus an octave below the drone.
• 64:45 produces a difference tone a (sharp) minor third plus an octave below the drone.

Learning to hear the difference between these is a major project, but it will help you be flexible and sensitive. If you have limited time, just concentrate on the perfect and consonant intervals. If you have lots of time, you can move on to intervals larger than an octave.

The next step is to practice scales over a drone and scales along with a pianist.
Now that I know what to listen for, I don’t practice intonation specifically as much as I used to.


As far as practicing repertoire is concerned, I don’t have a particular method. Each piece has its own demands. There are three basic rules: spend some time practicing to fix mistakes, spend some time practicing getting through the piece no matter what happens, and have an idea of what you want the piece to sound like and work towards that idea.

"Fixing mistakes" involves a lot of repetition, whether you are concentrating on fingering, embouchure, bowing, intonation or whatever the technical issue is. If you play something wrong nine times, correct on the tenth time, and then stop, your body will think that the wrong way is the right way. The only way they’ll know the difference is because your brain will make your body do the procedure more times right than wrong. If you keep making mistakes during your repetitions, then chances are you’re going too fast. The metronome is your friend; use it to gradually progress from slow to fast. I recommend getting the kind that increases one beat per minute at a time, instead of the ones that skip, for example, from 152 to 160. Also remember that just because you played it right 100 times yesterday doesn’t mean that you will today and certainly is no indication of how you’ll play it next week. Small increments of progress every day are more beneficial than trying to cover a lot of material in one day and then not practicing for a few days. But you knew that.

Getting through the piece no matter what happens is probably one of the most overlooked aspects of practicing. We get so caught up in fixing things that every time something goes wrong, we stop. Because this is a repeated behavior, it becomes the normal reaction to every glitch. The antidote is to practice not letting your mistakes get to you. Even when you know the piece really well, accidents can happen.

You should have an idea of the emotional road map of the piece and come up with ways to bring that out using articulation, dynamics, tone color, and intonation. Experiment and exaggerate during practice; this will help you figure out what works and what doesn’t. Singing and moving are also recommended. If you are at a loss for ideas, make something up and then turn to recordings. I think recordings are more helpful when you can compare them to what you are doing. Too often they serve as a point of imitation and the student performer never gets a chance to work on their own original ideas. Yet, I do think that imitation can be useful with musical and emotional analysis. Jazz students will often transcribe and learn solos of great improvisers. One can learn something from close imitation as long as it’s coupled with reflection. Imitation is not a substitute for developing one’s own style and sound.

Lastly, it is possible and recommended to do some practicing away from the instrument. Being able to hear pitches clearly in your head is a big bonus here, but if you’re not at that level yet, be able to at least hear rhythms clearly in your head. You can practice rhythms, fingerings, articulation, bowing, notes, and expression — all away from your instrument (I include voice as an instrument!). This is particularly helpful when you have limited practice time or for long trips where you can’t take out your instrument, but you have a lot of time on your hands. Even if you’re driving, you can work on singing your piece from memory out loud or in your head.

There is no magical substitute for practicing. If you don't feel like practicing, don't; you probably won't get much good work done, anyway. If not-practicing turns into a habit, then you have some soul-searching to do. I think the number one reason for not practicing, other than lack of time (you can squeeze it in, you can!), is that no one likes to hear themselves sound like crap. Admit it now and you'll save yourself much grief. The second admission you'll have to make is that sometimes you will sound like crap, especially when you are practicing. Get over it as quickly as you can! I know this is easier said than done. Often, you will sound like crap for a long time, even when you are working your hardest over and over again, day after day. It can be awfully discouraging, to put it lightly. It takes time for your muscles to adjust to new things. Make sure you know very clearly what to look for (use a mirror — again, work on not being so self-conscious) and what to listen for. Keep working in little snippets of time on a regular basis (at least four days per week, but more is preferable!). Eventually, things will fall into place. If not, then go back and make sure you know what you are doing. If you are practicing on a regular basis, but things aren't working, then perhaps you and your teacher are not communicating properly. Tread lightly so as not to make enemies, and see if you can finagle the information you need out of your present teacher or a different teacher. Be patient.

If you ever feel you have run out of things to practice, you are gravely fooling yourself.