How I Optimize My Practice

In a previous blog I discussed how you to determine the length of your practice, and I recommend reading that alongside this blog, either before or after. The way to practice differs depending on who you talk to, but I think that there are elements that they all cover, or at least should cover. These elements rely heavily on the amount of time allotted to complete them, and on the efficient use of that time. I won't say how to use this time, but I hope to give a general approach to how to make that decision using one example from an excerpt from Ligeti's Piano Concerto. 

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The first time I saw this excerpt, I was very confused as to how I would learn it. I didn't really have an established plan on how to learn new pieces, but rather I'd jump in and begin learning notes. Often that strategy would be very frustrating, and I soon had to figure out a better way to tackle new music. So I began structuring my practice based on these things:

  1. What is my goal
  2. What needs to be accomplished to reach the goal 
  3. What of those tasks are more difficult for me
  4. What of those tasks are easy to me
  5. How much time do I have in the practice room
  6. How much time do I have outside the practice room
  7. When do I know I've completed a task

I've found that having clear goals helps me avoid an endless cycle of refinement, and allows me the freedom to stop practicing a certain element when it has satisfied my requirements (numbers 1 and 7 rely on each other). Depending on the type of situation, those requirements can change, but overall you should resolve that each task be done to a point where you feel both comfortable and confident with the execution and product of that execution. A more tangible method could be, being able to play the piece a number of times in a row with little to no mistakes or problems. I personally try to play the piece ten times in a row with no mistakes and with an audible musical idea each time. What needs to be accomplished in order to do that? 

  1. Listening to the Piece
  2. What's the Role
  3. Sound Concept or Quality
  4. Tempo
  5. Phrasing 
  6. Learn the Notes
  7. Ways to Execute
  8. Intonation
  9. Rhythmic Integrity
  10. Dynamics
  11. Embellishments or Articulations
  12. Memorization

This may seem like a long list, but many of these aspects work in conjunction with each other, and knowing when these occur can save you time, and even effort in some situations. When going through this list it's important to know how you work, and be open to finding that out if you are unaware of it. In the introductory list, we discussed numbers 1, 7 and 2. When considering how we work individually, we have to consider what of these tasks come easy and which are more difficult for us (numbers 3 and 4 of the introductory list). It's important to be ok with having trouble with something. If not you risk avoiding that aspect, not spending adequate time on it, and approaching it negatively or with hesitation. Keith Aleo, percussion director of Interlochen Arts Academy, once said, "Every challenge is a gift, an opportunity to learn something new." I think nurturing that mindset will make approaching such situations in a healthier way. I'll give myself as an example and discuss which of 1-12 are easy to do and which are not.

 

Listening to the Piece/What's the Role/Sound Concept or Quality/Tempo/Phrasing

Starting out I did not like listening to the piece before I began learning the notes. It took a while to develop that discipline and cultivate that desire to listen before I began note learning. I soon realized that learning notes was easier to do when I knew how the piece sounded, and knew how my part fit into the orchestra. Was I a solo voice, accompaniment, rhythm section, background noise, part of a chamber sized group, a duet, etc.? The tempo is pretty self explanatory, but it may be necessary to listen to more than one recording to get a better sense of what is going on. In the first recording, the xylophone is very hard to hear, but you can tell what the atmosphere and approach to the piece could be, even sound concept and quality. The second recording is a lot clearer as far as the xylophone's presence, audible phrasing idea and concept of sound. The tempo is slower than the first excerpt, but this gives you license to do the faster, slower or an in between tempo. This doesn't mean you should copy either recording, but this can be used as a guide to make your own decisions on the direction of the excerpt going forward. I encourage that you establish those aspects before learning the notes.

 

Learn the Notes/Ways to Execute/Intonation

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Once I've established numbers 1-5, I begin tackling the music. I highly recommend slow practice when starting out for several reasons. It allows you to analyze multiple things at once, and correct mistakes and bad habits as they happen. You can learn the piece note by note, but I encourage you to entertain the idea of learning groupings of notes. You can determine these groups based on the sheet music itself, phrasing, bar by bar, beat by beat, whatever feels appropriate to the situation. Here, I would consider learning these two bars either splitting both bars in half, or learning each barred group of notes (the first 4 notes, next 3, next 2, next 3, etc.) As I learn the notes, I have to determine what the best sticking (fingering, etc.) is. Here, the best option is to begin with the right hand, and alternate through the second bar. In case you are unsure if this sticking will work at tempo, do speed up the bar once you get a handle on the notes and execution to see if it is possible, or if another sticking is possible. 

For wind, brass and string player, intonation has a very clear meaning, but what does it mean for us drummers? Intonation has to do with the accuracy of pitch, which has an affect on their approach to sound quality as well. For us, what affects our sound quality is our motion and movement from note to note. If our motion is too fast or too slow it will change the quality of sound. Practicing slow allows us to be aware of how we get from note to note, whether we are hesitating, or moving prematurely to the next note. Efficient and accurate movement essentially is our version of intonation. 

 

Rhythmic Integrity/Dynamics/Embellishments or Articulations

ligeti 2.PNG

Now we get to the details of the page itself. Generally, as you are learning the piece, you should be paying attention these things as much as you can. However, these aspects can be a lot to focus on at once, so they can be tackled after you've established the notes and their execution. You want to make sure that the rhythms you are playing are correct, for obvious reasons, but it also ensures that you are not rushing or dragging during your performance. It's not only the fact that you are playing a sixteenth note, but that you are giving that sixteenth note its proper length. Next are the dynamics. In the first pictured example, the dynamics are shown to be based on the accented and unaccented notes (accents getting a fortissimo marking, and unaccented notes a mezzo forte marking.) In this example, this remains the same, but the second measure has a diminuendo poco a poco (get softer little by little.) You will have to take this into consideration when gauging the dynamic difference between the accented and unaccented notes as they get softer through the remainder of the excerpt. 

Next are the embellishments and articulations. For this piece, the sheet music only gives accents, but that doesn't mean there are no other articulations to consider. Listening to the piece, is the over all texture articulate, legato, something in between? The answer to that question informs the general articulation that you will use for the excerpt. After that, anything written in the piece adds on to that. Personally, I wouldn't play this too staccato, or short, but not too long either. Something clear but with a little bit of length. Here, there aren't any embellishments, but in a piece like Messiaen's Exotic Birds for instance, taking care of the sound and execution of the embellishments really livens up the piece, and gets it that much closer to being a more complete product in the end. 

 

Memorization

This is kind of an extra step. You don't necessarily have to memorize everything that you learn, but this step occasionally happens naturally as a result of your work on and repetition of the piece. There are many ways to intentionally memorize a piece. Links to two other options can be found here and here. Here are some tactics that I have used.

  • Playing each bar until I feel comfortable, and then playing it without looking at the music
  • Singing each bar as I learn and play them (either out loud or in my head)
  • Singing the part without playing (either out loud or in my head)
  • Visualizing myself playing (with or without the sound)
  • Audiating or imagining hearing the piece
  • Focusing on the motions I do/need or the choreography of the piece
  • Playing the piece with only one hand, either air playing or dropping completely the other hand
  • Playing the piece with my eyes closed (focuses my attention on movements and sounds)
  • Learning it phrase by phrase, and repeating it until it's familiar (great for Bach solos I think)

 

This may seem like a lot to handle at first, but hopefully seeing these grouped together this way lessens that overwhelming feeling. These aspects all influence each other in some way, and can be moved around to suit your strengths and weaknesses. I personally had a hard time with memorizing pieces starting out, but I was very good at working on my movements and intonation. So, by focusing only on that, it helped me memorize what my body needed to do to get to each note, eventually memorizing the entire choreography and consequently the piece. What are your strengths? How can that influence another aspect of your learning process? You can put your focus in those areas, and by finding those commonalities, they can help you strengthen your weaknesses.

Another example is articulations. If you have trouble executing articulations as they appear, you can think of them in a different way. An articulation influences the sound in a certain way, and if focusing on sound concept comes naturally to you, you can think of the articulation as an addition to the existing sound concept. If the physical execution is difficult, putting focus on the motions, or sticking choice could help as well. Maybe neither tactic works, and it's more of a mental challenge. You can sing, audiate, visualize, etc., wrapping your head around the event.

Knowing how you work, what you need to accomplish and knowing when something is complete will inform how long you spend practicing anything. If you know that it takes a while to learn the notes, dedicate more time to that. If you know that learning motions helps you learn notes faster, incorporate that in your practice, and that will save you time. Through trial and error, you will find your strengths and weaknesses, your habits, your personal short cuts or groupings that work together, etc. and with time you will be able to make your practice more efficient. Do not focus only on the amount of time you spend on each item, but on their completeness. If it takes you 5 minutes or 50 minutes to complete a task, that's fine. The key is to be aware of it, and know when to move on. 

I really hope these tips help you in some way, and that your practice becomes more enjoyable and efficient with time. Thanks for reading! 

How I Worked on Sight Reading

While I was at the Detroit Symphony, I was able to take lessons with the assistant principal percussionist, Andres Pichardo-Rosenthal. One of the things we worked on a lot was sight reading. It always scared me, and I felt very insecure about my abilities, but Andres had a really fun way of approaching sight reading, and making it less stressful. I eventually got the hang of it and started experimenting with my own ideas on how to work on it. I'll be discussing only sight reading pitch based music, and not rhythmic based music, but these tips can be used for the latter as well. Some may be old news, and others may be new, but hopefully these tips and suggestions will be helpful to you in your personal practice. There are other blogs as well that may be helpful, or say things a different way that will resonate with you, and I encourage you to research other methods and find things that work for you. For now, here's how I go about it.

The mindset that I try to have when I go into sight reading is to not second guess my intuition, or any information that I find while skimming through or actually playing the piece. If you see that there is an A natural, take it at face value. Starting out, I found that I constantly would read a note, and second guess if I read it correctly. I had to force myself to accept that I saw, read and had to play an A natural, instead of hesitating and second guessing what I saw. Don't second guess your eyes, or your intuition, when you are sight reading. It takes getting used to, but it will change your approach before and during the actual playing.

You also should not feel rushed or try to rush through any of these steps. Take as much time as you need to feel confident in what you did during these preparatory steps, and then begin sight reading. Repeated practice will increase your speed and efficiency naturally, but do not force it in any way. You may consider timing yourself if you want to record your progress, but do not feel pressured to be the fastest sight reader. Only aim to become more efficient in how you go about sight reading, that is the real goal.

Before you start playing, you need to learn as much about the piece you are about to sight read as you can. When you are practicing, start every sight reading session by looking for these things:

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1) What is the key signature?  

B-flat. I suggest not to say whether it is major or minor, because as you begin skimming or playing the piece, you may be surprised as to what the key is, or you may not ever know. Qualifying it as B-flat major may have negative effects on your reading, decision making or "taking it at face value," and you may also have false expectations, making you read things incorrectly, or second guessing what you read. I simply say it's in the key of B-flat, and read it as such.

2) What notes will be sharp/flat because of the key signature?

B-flat and E-flat.

3) Are there any additional accidentals throughout the piece?

There's a C-sharp, an F-sharp and a B-natural. 

4) What is the time signature? 

6/8

5) What is the tempo?

Dotted half-note equals 60 beats per minute

6) What does that tempo sound/feel like?

It is essentially one click per bar, so it will be on the faster side in feel, and sound like a jig maybe? 

 

If you develop this habit of looking for these items, you will feel more comfortable and prepared for both the approach and the attempt to sight reading. I should also point out that while you are looking for these things, you are not trying to read down the piece at that moment. You are only looking for those specific aspects of the piece to make you aware of what to expect when you begin to skim over the piece itself. 

My next step is to skim through the piece. As you do this, you are just looking at how the notes move, not at individual notes or going note by note. You will notice either very simple scalar movement, arpeggios or arpeggios-like movement, leaps or large interval distances, rhythms that may differ from normal, and things of that nature. This just gives you an overview of what to expect as you begin playing the piece. As you improve with skimming through, you may even begin to contemplate stickings that will be useful for certain passages that you come across. When I first started, I used to play a lot of things with my strong hand, because it was easier for me to react with it quickly, if I came across something very difficult and couldn't confidently use my other hand to play the passage. As I got better with skimming through the piece, I was able to feel more confident using both hands, and even choosing to do double or even triple stickings with my weak hand, preparing for a leap with my strong hand, and other situations like that. 

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Measure 1- ascends and descends by seconds, or in scalar fashion, etc. (you could start the piece with either hand. Let's see what the next measure needs though)

Measure 2- ascends in an arpeggio, and leaps down to an E-flat (or by a fourth if that way of thinking is easier), and finishes descending in scalar fashion (the arpeggio may work better if you start with your left hand, so you could begin the previous measure with the left so that you are ready to play the arpeggio. doing that, the leap to the E-flat will be easily executed by the left hand)

Measure 3- there are 3 consecutive leaps: one down from C-natural to C-sharp, then up to D-natural, and lastly up to another D-natural (coming from the previous measure, you will begin this measure with the left hand, meaning you will have to use a double sticking to strike the low C-sharp. Given the tempo, it may be easier to start that measure with the right hand, giving you more time to prepare the left hand for that C-sharp. You could do a double right hand going into the 3rd measure, using the right hand on the last D-natural of the second measure, and a right hand on the beginning of the third measure. The high D-natural will also be easier if you use the right hand, meaning you will have to do a double sticking, striking both D-naturals with the right hand in that measure).

Measure 4- descends in scalar fashion, and has one slight interval leap down from A-natural to F-natural, and then a large leap down from F-natural to F-sharp (coming from the previous measure, you would begin with the left hand, which will work fine because when you get to the large leap, you will have your left hand available to strike it).

Measure 5- ascends in scalar fashion (coming from the previous measure, you may consider doing a double sticking to begin the fifth measure on the left hand, giving your right hand a little more time to prepare for the last measure).

 

If you would like, you do have the option of air playing (playing without hitting the notes with or without sticks) the piece as a final step before actually playing the piece through, but I recommend doing that only after you have skimmed through the piece first. The added action of air playing takes up more brain space, essentially causing your skimming to have less impact. However, as you improve with your sight reading, you may find that air playing while skimming has no negative effects at all, but if you are starting to sight read for the first time, I would advise against it for now. I still do all three steps separately to this day, and even though I could combine air playing and skimming, I like giving myself as much time as I need to feel comfortable with the piece. 

This process is something you can rely on when you get into an audition situation and have to perform anything they put in front of you. However, there are other things you can do aside from these to improve your abilities overall, and not just your execution of the process itself.

 

1) Find music to read, not to play

You want to become accustomed to sight reading any piece of music, to the point that you begin to notice patterns instantly as they appear: scales, arpeggios, intervalic leaps like thirds, fourths and , rhythmic patterns, etc. Taking the playing out of it allows you to focus solely on your eyes and your comprehension of what you see. Here are some pitch patterns you will want to get used to noticing automatically

2) Practice ALL scalar fundamentals

You want your mind and body to respond correctly when you read something new. You don't want to be unprepared physically to execute anything you see. If the piece has a B-flat scale in it, it should be fairly simple to perform it once you realize what it is. But, if you don't know your B-flat scale, it will be more difficult to execute. Therefore, I practice all of my scales, major and minor, arpeggios, and other exercises that make me more knowledgeable and comfortable with the layout of the keyboard. 

3) Improvise on your scalar fundamentals

It's good to diverge from the main variation of any scalar exercise to develop more flexibility and fluency with the scale itself. If your exercises are all ascending, practice them all descending. Maybe combine exercises from different scales: ascending in B-flat and descending in F-sharp. Play octave scales, or other intervals, as double stops, or separating them starting with either hand (playing octave C-naturals together and going up the scale in like manner, or beginning with the high C then striking the low C, or vice versa, and going up the scale in like manner).

4) Read/play through duets

Something Andres and I did often was sight read duets together. Often it was violin duets, but you can find anything that would be comparable. Something else you may consider, if you don't have a buddy to play them with, is to record yourself playing the top or bottom line, counting yourself off in the recording, and then playing the other line along with the recording. Andres did that a lot and made me do the same in many lessons. I found it fun after a while, and it is really helpful. 

5) Leaping Scales

Ross Karre from the International Contemporary Ensemble taught this at an Interlochen masterclass. Take any scale and play it, but play each note of the scale in a different octave than the previous note. This really helps you with playing large intervals, introducing your ears to a very different sound concept of the scale, getting you to expand your reach and comfort around the keyboard, and it really works your brain in a different way. Below is what C-major could look like if you did this exercise.When you come across another piece with large leaps, you may find that they are easier because of doing this a few times a day.

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I hope these suggestions helped make sight reading more approachable as it did for me. The links below are to sites that generate sight reading materials, but you may find others online that can be helpful. The first link is to another blog I thought had very good tips as well on getting started and developing good habits for sight reading.

10 Tips and Tricks for Sight Reading

Sight Reading Factory

Practice Sight Reading

Soundswell Sight Reading

ABRSM Sight Reading

 

Audition Starter Pack

I was very fortunate as a student to have a lot of resources available to me. I could always borrow my teacher's snare drum or mallets, and I didn't have to purchase much of anything starting out. However, it was always on my mind, and I began making lists of things I thought I'd need for not only auditions, but things I could use all the time. I wanted to give one of those lists here, just to get people started and to give an idea of things you should invest in now with certainty. If I only had this list of items, I would be perfectly capable of doing my job at the CPO, taking an audition, attending school, etc. 

Marimba:

Xylophone:

Glockenspiel:

Vibraphone:

Bass Drum:

Tambourine:

Triangle:

Triangle Beaters:

Timpani: