Practicing 101

woodshed
Taking it to the woodshed…..

We talk about a lot of things to do to bring your “A” Game to the audition room in my class at SWOSU Band camp. For those that have not been (and to remind those who have) here are some practice basics that might be helpful in the big final push for a performance, jury, or audition.

1.  Work on fundamental issues in your warm up.  Five to fifteen minutes spent working on tone production, fundamental positions, posture, breathing, articulation – both correct technique and speed, can work wonders.  Brass players need to work flexibility studies.  Everyone needs scales, at least some every day..  .   I always had to work a lot on tone and flexibility because those were my biggest problems.  Others might have to work scales and other figure speed exercises more.   A few minutes concentrating on your “worst thing” in warm up can pay off through the entire practice session.    If you are not sure what your worst thing is, ask your teacher.  Keep the warmup period short unless there is a big issue that is holding you back.

2. Spend the most time on the worst places. This is not something anyone does naturally.  We like to sound good and we want anyone hearing us practice to hear good things.  Get pass all that soon! Slow painstaking practices on the measures or parts of measures (sometimes just three notes-sometimes just two back and forth-sometimes the attack/tuning/tone quality for one note) that are the most pesky will pay off. Sometimes intentional, focused, accurate* practice at a very slow speed will actually cause it to be better the next time you run the piece at a much faster speed. Use a metronome. Speed up gradually. If you reach a daily tempo plateau then back down to your accurate speed, play it really well at that speed, and let your brain process. (It takes the brain some time to process your practice each day. Remember to get some rest.)

3. Spend some time running longer passages focusing on tone and musical expression.  Some suggest that you go back and forth between small practice and large.  I think this is a good idea.  Since most auditions are cuts, pick some cuts and practice playing them without stopping. You can to this with an entire etude etc. Since there are cuts in all-state auditions in Oklahoma you should practice cuts. When you are doing this you keep going no matter what as you will in an audition. It would be silly to stop after a mistake, work on it for a bit, and then take up playing the piece from there. So when you are practicing a run-through of piece you should do it audition style. People who make all-state make some mistakes. So you need to practice staying on task when there is a mistake. If you run a section several times you will have a better idea of which places need the practice. So go back and circle the places you missed and practice them separately. Again,alternating between micro sections and macro runs can be highly effective.

There is some more to this, but this is a good over view.

4. For Oklahoma All-State, there are specific scales and ranges in the audition. Remember to practice these scales. Band students need to remember to work the chromatic scale up to speed and not just the major scales. You can do micro practice on scales if you need to. but they usually come around faster than etudes.   Your state practices may vary outside Oklahoma.  The sooner you get this done the better.  You can review a lot of scales in a hurry after you know them.

5. At least once a day the week of the audition  practice an entire mock audition. Warm up. Leave your practice space. Stand outside the door and do calming breaths and focusing exercises if you know how.  (There is more about breathing on this blog if you do not know how.)   Re-enter and arrange your music on the stand. Pick and play scales for your instrument as required. Play cuts from the music with no stopping. (No talking or swearing!) Stand or sit – which ever is right for you. Imagine a judge asking you for each thing. Then leave the room. Forgive yourself for any mistakes. Next, go back in and review any issues this uncovers.

6.  This is actually a big deal:  You must get away from it all for awhile.  Get your practicing done.  Then spend some time with friends.  Walk the dog.   Read a good book.  Meditate. Sleep. Dance to the Wicked cast recording and sing along, especially with “Defying Gravity.” Whatever works for you. Your brain needs to process and store everything you processed.  The little IT guy in your brain may have to upgrade or add new wiring.   Give that little guy half a chance to use the information from your practice session to upgrade your neural circuits.

During the run, focus on the moment. I could list a million things to avoid, but I don’t want to give anyone ideas. If you are playing and you notice yourself not into the music just easily move from wherever you are back into the music. You can think about whatever you want after you leave the room.

You can also do mental practice of the audition any time and place. Riding the bus home or to a performance. Waiting for the teacher to answer questions from kids who are not in band or orchestra and never understand anything. Anywhere. Mental practice is a good thing. But practice a good audition that goes as intended.

*About “accurate”
Accurate means practice on getting everything right when you go slow. Everything.
Fingering
Rhythm
Intonation
Bowing/Articulation – Correct technique and musical attacks and releases.
Good tone (and everything involved in that) on EVERY note.
Posture
Position (of everything)
Make sure the instrument and everything about it (strings/reeds/valves- stuff like that) is in top shape.

If you develop good habits about these things when you go slow they will stay with you when you are playing faster and, ultimately, become part of your every day playing.

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