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How to Practice: A Guide for All Levels

To be productive and efficient in your practice time, follow the outline below. Practice a passage and focus on one level at a time. If you find yourself stuck, use a Practice Technique (below.)

  1. Rhythms and Tempo
  2. Notes and Fingerings
  3. Articulation (tonguing and slurring)
  4. Dynamics
  5. Tone Quality and Embouchure
  6. Phrasing and Character


Practice Techniques:

  1. Slow Down – Slow down until you are 100% confident that you are playing exactly what is printed on the page.

  2. Look Ahead – Constantly look ahead of where you are actually playing, even if by one measure or one beat. If you're playing a long note or easy passage, "Look Ahead" to see what is coming up next.

  3. Mark It – "Miss it? Mark it!" Write in a flat, sharp, counting or a visual cue. Good students (and pros) always mark their parts.

  4. Count – If you can count it, you can play it. See Rhythm Chart.

  5. Memory Card (visual reminder) – When you are trying to master a particular skill (embouchure, concentration, "slow down," etc.,) write a word or phrase on a note card and place the card on your music stand. The constant visual reminder is effective, especially when learning a new skill or passage.


More Practice Suggestions

  1. Set daily goals – Write a goal for each etude or solo passage for today. Challenge yourself and work toward each goal, recording the day's progress.

  2. Don’t practice mistakes (a.k.a. "Zero Mistakes") – The key is to slow down. If you proceed to play through a piece with lots of mistakes every time, then you are practicing mistakes. You must be 100% certain that you are playing exactly what is printed on the page. A new piece must be practiced under tempo for accurate rhythms, notes, articulations, dynamics, etc.

  3. Use a Metronome – A metronome helps you to measure time evenly. The metronome must be loud enough so that you can still hear it when playing fortissimo. When first learning a piece, find the fastest tempo where you have complete control. Write this tempo in the margin, it is your starting tempo for the week.

  4. '5-n-1 Method' or '4-out-of-5 Method' – The goal is to increase the tempo of a single passage. You will have the best chance of reaching your Goal Tempo in 7 days, if you slow down and listen carefully.


5-n-1 Method (for intermediate to advanced students)

Use the 5-n-1 Method for difficult passages which are eight measures or shorter. Limit this exercise to 20 minutes per hour; it is possible to cause injury (RSI, etc.). Accuracy is paramount to this exercise. If the repetitions are not accurate, start slower.

First, isolate the difficult passage and find the fastest tempo where you can play the passage with zero mistakes. This is your starting tempo.

1. Play the passage five times at the starting tempo, for example, quarter = 80.
2. Play it one time at 12 faster (or 3 clicks on an older metronome) than you just played it, quarter = 92.
3. Play it five times at 8 slower (two clicks) than you just played it, 84.
4. Play it one time at 12 faster, 96.
5. Play it five times at 8 slower, 88.
6. Repeat this pattern until you are 8 faster than our goal tempo and play once. Then, try playing your goal tempo. It should feel easy and be accurate.

One can tailor the increase/decrease number for each passage. For example, increase by six and decrease by four (instead of "up twelve and down eight.")


4-out-of-5 Method (for beginners)

Play a passage once - as slow as necessary to play it with "zero mistakes." This tempo is your starting tempo - record in margin.

Next, play the passage five times. 4-out-of-5 must be 100% accurate, ("zero mistakes.") If more than one playing has mistakes, slow down and try again.

When you can play 4-out-of-5 times accurately, increase the metronome by one click (or 4, if you have a digital metronome) until you reach the goal tempo.

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