What Is An Effective Practice Routine for Instrumentalists?

2011Symposium_1_2One of the most daunting tasks for a musician is to make a start at learning a new and difficult work. We all enjoy the ease of playing a well practiced and already performed piece, but starting work on new and challenging music takes an initial burst of will-power and self-motivation. There may be an initial burst of excitement, but as the difficulty of the music sets in, all that ‘s left is to dig in and start “woodshedding.” Be that as it may, it doesn’t have to be as difficult as we sometimes make it. Inefficient or ineffective practice habits can cause music to take longer to learn than it has to, and turn a promising project into a prolonged chore. Here are some practical ways of getting the most out practice sessions, developing good habits and avoiding bad ones. I offer these for clarinet, but the principles apply to all instruments.

Begin every practice session with scale work, beginning with the chromatic scale, three octaves on the clarinet. Practice for accuracy and evenness at a solid mezzo forte dynamic. If the scale is not even, break it into segments, practicing the scale up and down the interval of a triton (c to f-sharp, for example), several times, and then repeat a half step higher (c# to g would be next). Do this until all segments can be played evenly, regardless of what note you start on. Then, expand to a scale up and down the interval of an octave. It may be months before the octave scale is begun. Do not rush the process. Chromatic scale study develops technique inclusive of all notes, and is of tremendous value, even within a small interval.

After chromatic scales, practice one major or minor scale. Play it ascending and descending through the range of the instrument. Be watchful for places where unevenness occurs or where a fingering is awkward, and focus in on that segment of the scale, as with the chromatic scale. Also, practice the scale beginning and ending on each scale degree so that, for instance, a D major scale is played D to D, E to E, F-sharp to F-sharp, and so forth.

Continue with a staccato drill. Playing each note of the chromatic scale for one octave, articulating two sixteenths and an eighth or four sixteenths on every pitch of the ascending one octave chromatic scale is excellent. That can be followed by practicing the first clarinet part for the scherzo from A Midsummer’s Night Dream incidental music by Mendelssohn.

Next, spend time practicing an etude that addresses a known area of weakness. Etudes may address left hand, right hand, staccato, scales, major, minor, augmented, diminished or seventh chord arpeggios, to name a few areas. I like to pick an etude that helps me with something I am having trouble with in the literature I’m practicing.

The last segment of a good practice session is for practicing repertoire. For music that will eventually be played fast,squidward clarinet start slow. If the music has a constant rhythm such as all sixteenth notes, begin by playing one line at a time very slowly. The goal here is to play all the right notes, and to play them with an even tone, an accurate but light touch on the keys with no straining in the hands, producing a smooth legato. Fingers should come on and off the keys at a steady pace, never hitting or banging against the keys or instrument, and hand position must be correct at all times. If a particular fingering combination or finger is problematic, find an etude that addresses that hand and finger combination, and practice it relentlessly until the problem is corrected. Etudes by Kalmen Opperman are particularly helpful for this, because most of his etudes are focused on a particular hand or finger. The four volumes of velocity studies (easy, intermediate, advanced and virtuoso) are highly recommended.

One of the most likely difficulties a player will encounter is rhythmic unevenness. To remedy this, practice one line at a time slowly and with all possible articulations. Use one articulation pattern all the way through the line, and then play it again with another articulation pattern. Continue to repeat the line, each time with a different articulation pattern until all have been used. Finally play all the notes slurred, and listen to the evenness you have achieved. For steady sixteenth notes, articulation patterns include two slurred, two staccato, one staccato three slurred, three slurred one staccato, to slurred and two slurred, one staccato, two slurred, one staccato, and two staccato, two slurred. For groups of six notes, more combinations are possible.

After practicing two lines in this manner, play both lines, one after the other, again with all articulations, and then all slurred. Continue to enlarge the number of lines included until the entire piece or passage has been learned. If at any time you make an error, or notice unevenness, stop playing and go back to practicing slower with all articulations again. Eventually, learning will be permanent, and you will not need the articulations. While overall practice time will vary with age and performance requirements, it is important to include each segment in a practice routine; that is, chromatic scale, diatonic scale, staccato, etude, and repertoire. Following this regimen will result in gratifying results.


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