Basic Technique, Attitude and Practice Strategies for All Musicians

Updated: May 20, 2018


When we sleep, the brain prunes what we don’t need in terms of registering the important events of the day to be used subsequently. So, much of our practice goes away with sleep. This is why you have mornings when practice just doesn’t feel like it did the day before.

However, this can and should be used to your advantage. For, it is a survival mechanism. Imagine what it would be like if we held on to everything of our experience. Like how we tied our shoe three weeks ago on a Wednesday. The confusion, differences and ultimate train wreck would create conflicts so numerous after a while, we would stop activity, unable to make sense of it.

So, we are lucky our brains prune for us the irrelevant.

Our perceptions are limited, too. We cannot perceive everything in the Universe. For example, a Golden Eagle can take a man’s hand completely off, before his perceptual system registers the hand is gone. Even feeling the hand leaving con not happen. We notice the hand gone and experience the subsequent pain, after the eagle’s amputation.

This leaves us with the necessity of learning, searching and training. These are the tools of the musician.

The first and most basic technique development for a musician is consistent practice. Our brain’s neurons fire electro-chemical signals. When neurons fire together, they wire together. Enough practice and neurons wire together to form networks similar to constellations and we then understand, a step forward. Daily, consistent practice encourages the proliferation of these fired together networks. Leaving practice for a few days, prunes these and in many ways we are at square one again — the beginning feels frustrating and difficult to understand, when we have dedicated ourselves to some practice. However, understand how the networks form and daily practice becomes a motivation.

However, practice does not improve with efficiency until we employ strategies during practice time. Just going over a piece again and again, because we like it, or because we will need to perform it, does relatively little over time and we lose the piece once the performance is over, pruned away, now not needed. Further, such a repetitive style of practice creates an inflexible and dull performance. Skill development and association of pieces with those skills is critical to our long term success.

There are a few strategies recommended.

  1. Develop a routine. Include several and varied exercises that develop relaxed control of various aspects of making music. If you play a wind instrument these should include breath control exercise (long tones, harmonic series, scales, patterns.) Or, on piano, hand position and finger flexibility, (scales, Hanon, Czerny, etc) Then spread these exercises among the pieces you practice for performance. A Hanon study similar to patterns found in an upcoming performance piece paired during practice suits the learning process well. Or, an overtone series, which develops consistent tone throughout range serves well before practice of a piece with a wide range. Scales, arpeggios, patterns in the keys of upcoming pieces help. The routine should not be played in the same order every day, and should develop over time to include appropriate challenges and technique suitable for performance requirements of the future. Such rotation of practice ensures both flexibility and facility, without building wrong habits, tension. It is like avoiding driving on a muddy road in the spring. When cars travel such a road, they develop ruts and when the nights freeze, as they do in the springtime, the next day the ruts can be then only means of passage on the road. Your playing can develop into such inflexibility without a rotated practice.

  2. Learn to study passages instead of playing the piece over and over again from beginning to end. After mastery of challenges, then put the piece together, for understanding phrasing, form, flow, meaning, concept.

  3. For a particular challenge, practice the passage several times, each time for a different purpose, or with a different focus. One time for tone and intonation, once for rhythmic accuracy, one for articulation, once for dynamics, once for phrasing. Then use all five approaches as a staff, and likewise put the music together.

  4. Play a piece backwards. Then forwards. Vary rhythm, change pitches, keys, etc. then return to the original piece. The variation provides perspective and reduces mistakes.

  5. Recognize that we focus on only one thing at a time. So, if you say to yourself, this is difficult, or I cannot play this, or I am nervous and unsure, etc, then that is what you are telling your body to be and to do. Likewise, focus on the requirements of the task at hand and your ultimate success and that becomes the result.

  6. The information you need to play comes from awareness, not our one area of focus, but from a relaxed approach, which opens our subconscious to informing the experience. This generates the sense we need to keep monitoring successfully our performance. The more you practice to inform your awareness, the greater the chances that you remind yourself of needed approaches in the moment. A brass payer can often experience a hesitation in breath control, just a moment that bothers us. This unattended sensation can fester and ultimately measures later show up as an audible mistake. Similarly, allowing our awareness to deny sensations or intuitions, will result in later audible anomalies. Change your focus as you sense this experience and you correct a mistake in advance of hearing one.

  7. Learn to sight read ahead. Use one half measure at first, then a whole measure, etc. Such growing awareness prepares us for challenges ahead in performance.

  8. Learn to accept that perfection has no place in music. It is impossible anyway. Imagine a perfect performance one night, then repeated perfectly in a different location the next night. Which then is perfect? They cannot both be so, for they are in different places, with different audiences, different weather, lighting, acoustics, etc. In the press, perfection might be described for both performances. However, if one is perfect, how then can the next one top that being perfect again? The fact is, each performance, even each practice is by definition different. Learn to celebrate and enjoy those differences. The resulting flexibility will engender fresh performances, enjoyable each time. No joy in perfunctory, perfected performances. These become dehumanized and uninteresting.

  9. Learn the needs of each instrument you play. Brass requires relaxed breathe control, piano relaxed hand position, proper fingering and finger dexterity. Voice requires breath control and a relaxed larynx, vocal folds, mouth and throat. Amplification on any instrument needs complete control and understanding or run the risk of tiring and tension. For the trombone, amplification comes after the entire instrument is vibrating from the waves striking all metal surface inside. A full resonation of the horn then can accommodate increased velocity of breath stream which intensifies the sound wave amplifying the instrument. Such is the nature of dynamics. In other words, create the sound making the most beautiful sound possible, then intensify the velocity of sound wave, producing a louder result.

  10. Learn to produce a consistent sound throughout your range. From this control, other sound variations may be learned and performed. However, if you start by learning to produce a different sounds for each range you limit your ability to create differences.

  11. Pitch, rhythm and articulation are the basic musical elements we have to produce a musical result. These all have a sequence from simple to complex patterns. Possibly, all else is an extension of these, including form, phrasing, expression. When control develops over your instrument technique should establish to the point of freedom to focus on these elements. Patterns of these make up a large part of music expression. However, continuity and line from beginning to end, and concept of the piece and style bring together music to form a whole composition. Learn flexibility to hear these patterns in different context. Just like scales and arpeggios.

  12. Beginning rhythm arises from beat, which is one. Then division gives us two movements possible, duple or moving in twos and triple, or moving in threes, sometimes called compound. Compound can be understood by considering our walk. We are bipeds. A duple beat division. When we walk in threes, we alternate displacing the downbeat, the first beat to alternating feet. Left right left, then right left right. i.e. compound beat: movement in threes. All of rhythm can be broken down as multiples and combinations of these three possibilities, one, two, three. Until, we discover 20th Century music and rhythm and beat relationships such as 5 in one, or 7, or 11 in one beat. These are prime numbers in the time of one beat. All other rhythms are some kind of combination of two or three.

  13. Humility and vulnerability are a huge part of musical making and expression. Our physical sensations are directly related to our emotions. We feel anger, love, joy, fear. These elements drive the expressive quality of musical play. Thus, making music is a physical expression direct from our emotions. Since we all hardwire ourselves with a sort of sound vocabulary from ages 2— about 10, our practice connects us with that vocabulary, and sensations inform us on that journey how to make that happen. It is intuitive. It is the gift some speak of that we are given, though all of us develop this hardwiring to sound in the environment: including music. Even the auditory cortex has a dedicated place for processing music. We have hardwired for sound for at least 140,000 years; it is in our DNA. When practicing and playing, accepting this connection, allowing ourselves to be wrong in our interpretation to correct our playing, according to our hardwired sense of sound, accept improvement is critical to finally knowing our musical selves and expressing the most beautiful music possible for ourselves. Thus, humility and vulnerability are essential to becoming a good musician.

  14. Another strategy used and here one suggested to be used sparingly, is to insist upon correct rendition of the music, with a mandate of starting over when mistaken. With an eye towards improvement each play through, one can use this technique to grow. However, punishing insistently for the “right” way to play will in the end only frustrate and create inflexible traps in performance.

  15. A word about rote practice. In the past rote practice was considered essential to musical training. However, rote practice itself was misunderstood and gave music education and learning a bad name. First, rote playing is not the only strategy necessary to develop good musicianship. The above attests to that. Neither is rote practice repetition learning. You do not learn scales by playing them over and over and over again. One fails if one just repeats over and over the same thing. Ruts are learned this way and flexibility, fresh, live performance suffers. Rather, rote practice is about attending to change for the better, for improvement each time a repetition is made. Remember, we form neuronal networks, or constellations in our brain and the best experience, the most beautiful result comes with attention to the beauty of music and to connection with our hardwired vocabulary, relating us to sound and through music to others. Here true rote practice becomes a learning experience and useful.

Later posts will use this basis for discussion on the development of technique and ability playing trombone, trumpet, piano, voice. Also, performance of styles will be the subject of some postings. Thanks for your comments.

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