If you’re a musician, you’ve undoubtedly heard the old adage “practice makes perfect” (or maybe even “perfect practice makes perfect” from your overzealous band director). Maybe you prefer the rhetorical “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice!”
We get it. There’s lots of practicing involved in this musician thing.
But what does effective practice look and sound like?
Proper practicing technique is an often neglected (or nonexistent) topic among private teachers and band directors. Most students are usually clear on what to practice, but it’s the how that gives them problems. If any of these sound familiar to you or your student, you are probably practicing ineffectively:
- practicing regularly yet not improving as much as you’d like
- repeatedly having to work on the same passages
- experiencing difficulty maintaining technique
- taking a long time to learn new music
Sound familiar? Grab your metaphorical fabric and knitting supplies, because we’re about to make a practice quilt!
Practicing is like making a quilt. You begin by creating many individual small squares out of fabric, which you gradually combine to create a giant quilt. In music, the “squares” are short passages which you individually isolate and slowly combine to work through a section, movement, or entire work – your musical quilt.
Over the years, I’ve asked my students to demonstrate how they would practice a piece if they were working on it at home. Invariably, they respond, “I play it over and over until it sounds better, then I move on.” Not only is this method unsuccessful, it’s a huge waste of time! The key to successful practice is breaking it down into smaller sections and gradually building them together to create the larger movement or piece. You’ll improve much quicker, retain technique, and spend less time in the practice room.
I’ve outlined the steps to making a practice quilt with an excerpt from the Francaix Concerto for Clarinet below. I used this practice quilt method to learn this entire concerto in two weeks for a last-minute performance (which is not something I recommend, but this was an extenuating circumstance).
Before we get started, here are some guidelines to maximize your quilting technique:
- Set specific and realistic goals.
- Good examples: I will learn the first page of the Mozart Concerto today. I will clean up measures 75-120 today. I will learn the second movement by Friday by learning 25 measures each day.
- Bad examples: I will work on the Corigliano Concerto. I will practice my scales. (Basically, avoid anything too vague or large-scale.)
- Use the 4 I’s to fix any problems.
- Identify. Specifically identify the problem (“This was bad” doesn’t count). Good example: I was late on the entrance in measure 48.
- Imagine. Brainstorm possible solutions. “I was late because I took a breath before the entrance, so I’ll see if there’s somewhere else I can breathe.”
- Isolate. Practice just the section that is giving you trouble, whether it is one note or one measure.
- Integrate. After you’ve successfully fixed the problem, integrate the small section back into the larger passage.
- Use a metronome. Unless you’re some kind of music-playing robot, you probably won’t be able to play everything at performance tempo from day 1. Start at half tempo or below and gradually increase the speed over the course of days and weeks.
- Play every practice “square” multiple times. According to multiple sources throughout history, “Amateurs practice until they get it right. Professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.” Play each section correctly several times in a row. Many musicians use the penny game for this, in which 3 or more pennies or other small objects are moved from one side of the stand to the other for each correct repetition. If you can move all 3 pennies from one side of the stand to the other without making a mistake, you win. If you make a mistake before all 3 pennies are moved, you reset and have to start over. Some musicians even get crazy and use 5 or more pennies!
- Haste makes waste. Don’t be in a rush to finish your quilt before it’s ready. Sloppy squares equals a poorly-made quilt (or a hastily-learned concerto). Don’t be too ambitious about cramming an entire piece into one practice session. As we all know, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was the Nielsen Concerto.
Alright, let’s make a practice quilt! Here’s an excerpt from the first movement of the Francaix Concerto for Clarinet (click the image to make it larger).
Looks pretty terrifying challenging, right? Here’s how you make a practice quilt:
- Make a practice square. Depending on the level of the performer and the difficulty of the piece, this can be anything from a single note to a couple of beats. In this musical example, a practice square could be the first and second beats of measure 25, plus the downbeat of measure 3 so you land on the downbeat.
- Work on practice square. Practice this square slowly with a metronome. Make sure that you can successfully play the practice square multiple times in a row (now’s a good time for the penny game!).
- Make another practice square. Let’s use beats 3 and 4 of measure 25 in the musical example above. Work on this second practice square until you can successfully play this multiple times in a row.
- Combine the practice squares. Play all of measure 25, plus the downbeat of measure 26 to land on a downbeat.
- Repeat steps 1-4 for the next section. You can do the same process for measure 26.
- Reinforce the seams. Once you’ve accumulated a few measures of practice squares, reinforce the transitions by practicing different parts of your growing quilt. For example, play beats 3 and 4 of measure 25 plus beats 1 and 2 of measure 26.
- Continue making squares and combining them until you have your complete practice quilt!
The practice quilt method is definitely tedious and mentally draining, but the long-term results are worth the effort!