In my opinion, the most important part of every practice routine is long tones.
I realize that’s a pretty bold statement, so let me explain.
Long tones are like a musical multivitamin. Depending on what you choose to focus on each day, you can fix a multitude of problems through effective long tone practice. If practiced effectively, long tones can help you improve tone (duh), tuning, lung capacity, posture, finger position, and basically anything else you can imagine.
If you’re already practicing long tones, here are a few tips to help take them to the next level:
- Don’t go on autopilot. Have you ever finished practicing something but have zero recollection of what you did? That, my friend, is autopilot practicing. Avoiding autopilot is such a simple instruction, but it can be so incredibly difficult to apply. Try to remain mentally engaged and focused while you play long tones. If you find your mind wandering, take a few deep breaths and try to refocus your attention to the long tones.
- Add more intervals. Don’t get me wrong – there are no bad long tone exercises (as long as they’re practiced effectively). However, by only practicing long tones with half steps and whole steps, you are missing a great opportunity to develop seamless connections between larger intervals. For clarinet, I like to incorporate octaves and twelfths so I can focus on connection and tuning.
- Slow down the tempo. If your metronome hasn’t budged in months (or longer), it’s time to challenge yourself by playing long tones at a slower tempo. Slow down by a click or two whenever your long tones start to feel easy so you can continue developing your lung capacity and air control. You should always feel slightly winded after each set, but never in physical pain. A good example is the feeling you get after doing one too many sit-ups – not running a marathon.
- Shift your attention to different details. If you always focus on the same things during your long tones, it’s time to shift your attention to other areas of your playing. For example, if you exclusively focus on tuning, spend some time working on creating a seamless connection between the notes or incorporate a wider dynamic spectrum. Like I said earlier, long tones are musical multivitamins, but you have to choose which vitamins you want to unlock each time you practice.
- Always challenge yourself. You can’t spell challenge without change! If your long tone routine is starting to feel too easy, it’s time to make some changes. In addition to slowing your tempo, you can transpose your normal long tones, alter the rhythm, play them in a different octave or register, play them from memory, or anything else that makes them more difficult so you avoid musical plateaus.
What other tips do you have to help take your long tones to the next level?