Hear me out – there is much more to practicing than the act of physically playing your instrument. Truthfully, it can be beneficial to take a break from practicing periodically to refresh your mind and body. And let’s be real – there are some days that practicing is just NOT going to happen, whether you’re tired or stressed from work/school or you’ve had a marathon day which leaves you in no mood to focus on finely-tuned details (pun intended). Which brings us here, to several suggestions I use when I’m taking a break from practicing. When you aren’t playing your instrument, there are many ways to better yourself as a musician, and you should take advantage of “off” days to improve these skills. Here are ways that I “practice” without actually playing clarinet:
Listen to recordings.
- This is great to learn new pieces you are working on and to get musical ideas from several interpretations. Whether you want to listen to pieces in your current repertoire or pieces you would like to know better, this is always a great option to expand your musical horizons. And the interesting thing about this is that there are always new pieces, performances, composers, and recordings to be discovered. Let’s say you’re working on the Schumann “Fantasy Pieces” – listening to this one piece is fine, but by listening to Schumann’s symphonies, song cycles, chamber music, and other works you will have a more comprehensive understanding of the composer, which will help you better perform the “Fantasy Pieces.” Also, check to see if there are adaptations of your music for other instruments (for example, the “Fantasy Pieces” is often performed on cello). And with sites like YouTube, there are no excuses not to find incredible recordings.
- Quite simply – study the score! Have your pencil handy and write in fingerings, breath marks, accidentals, key signature changes, entrances, rhythm breakdowns, etc in your part. Don’t limit yourself to only your music – study the piano part, orchestral accompaniment, or all of the instrumental parts in the score. Study the score and learn each instrument’s part to see how they relate to your own and the piece as a whole.
Work on reeds.
- Go through your reeds to discard any that are old, blown out, or don’t respond well. If you are incorporating new reeds, break them in or adjust according to your preferred method (breaking in reeds is a different topic for a different day). I realize you might have to open the case to try your reeds, but you’re technically not practicing, so allow me some leeway on this one.
Research performance or teaching opportunities.
- Look up summer festivals, concerts, competitions, or camps to attend. Not only will you learn about the many events which are available, but planning to audition for some of these will motivate you and can give your practice a clear goal to achieve.
Critique your past performances.
- This one’s tough – I don’t know any musician who can listen to past performances and not find a million and one details to improve. Although this is hard on the self-esteem, it can be very beneficial to listen to several past recordings to look for patterns. An errant squeak is mortifying, but consistently missing rhythms, running out of breath, playing out of tune, or other common thread is the result of a deeper issue. Find your weaknesses and make a plan to improve them.
Watch masterclasses and lectures online.
- Why pay thousands of dollars to travel the world attending conferences for the masterclasses of renowned artists when you can do it for free from the privacy of your home? There are so many masterclasses from which you can learn online; don’t limit yourself to your instrument. While semantics differ from instrument to instrument, music is universal. In addition to masterclasses, listen to lectures as well. My favorite is Leonard Bernstein’s “Norton Lectures” which can be viewed here.
Play some metronome games.
- I guess these “games” aren’t as fun as video games, but they improve rhythm a lot more effectively. Take a metronome and set it to a slower tempo (60 is an excellent starting point) and count subdivisions out loud. For example, there are two eighth notes in a beat, so you would say “One two/one two/one two……” Triplets would be “one two three” etc etc. You can go beyond four (which includes quintuplets, sextuplets, so on and so forth), but these are trickier to do at a faster speed. The goal of this is not to get you tongue-tied (although that is a common result), but to focus on inner rhythm and precision. This is also a great game to use for your students.
Have your instrument adjusted by a repair technician.
- Just like scheduling doctor appointments for yourself, it’s very easy to “forget” to schedule regular instrument maintenance sessions. Take your instrument to a trusted repair shop (or repair it yourself if you know what you’re doing). I always like to watch and ask questions as my instrument is being worked on to learn more about the process. You can pick up many tricks from your local repair tech!
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