How to Master Technical Passages for Woodwind Players

by Mitchell Estrin

A question I am often posed by my students is how to approach and master difficult technical passages. Most often, they will simply go through difficult passages repetitively without a plan and hope that somehow the passage will come out respectably in a lesson or during a performance. This is not a good recipe for success.

As one learns a piece of music, it is important to assess which passages will require the most woodshedding. Start practicing these passages when beginning to study a piece. Nothing is more frustrating than understanding a piece of music, developing an overall interpretative concept, and then not being able to play the piece cleanly or up to tempo due to the inability to execute difficult technical passages. This approach will inhibit musical growth and, in the case of a wind instrumentalist, will disturb good phrasing. Taking slower tempos will often necessitate breathing in awkward and undesirable places.

You can try putting the music under your pillow before going to sleep in hopes that osmosis will take care of the problem. Unfortunately, this technique has never proven successful! There are no shortcuts and it is only through well-planned and systematic practice that technical security can be achieved.

Here are two tried and true techniques for mastering difficult technical passages.  

"There are no shortcuts and it is only through well-planned and systematic practice that technical security can be achieved." - Mitchell Estrin


Establish the goal tempo for the piece you are preparing. Identify a difficult technical passage. Using a metronome, go back 10 notches from the goal tempo to begin your practice. 

As an example, if your goal tempo is quarter note =120, go back 10 notches to 80 (116, 112, 108, 104, 100, 96, 92, 88, 84, 80). This is the tempo you will set to begin to practice the passage.

Using the metronome, play the passage at 80. Be sure to include all of the notated musical nuances – dynamics, articulations, accents, etc. Once you can execute the passage three times in a row perfectly, you can move the metronome up to 84. If you make a mistake on any of the three attempts, go back to zero and start over. Be very picky and insistent of absolute accuracy!

Do not try to achieve all ten metronome speeds in one practice session. 

Spend 10-15 minutes maximum in each practice session and notate in your music (in pencil) what was the last speed you could execute the passage three times in a row perfectly. The next time you practice this passage, begin one tempo notch slower than where you left off. (Example: You achieved 96 in your last session, so begin this session at 92 – basically playing a game of musical leap frog!) Continue practicing this way until you reach your goal tempo three times in a row flawlessly. This can take days and even weeks to achieve for just a single passage. Don’t set a time limit – only be satisfied with perfect execution at each tempo.

PRO TIP – Aim to go one speed beyond your goal tempo if you possibly can. In our example the goal tempo was quarter note =120 – so work to get 126 three times in a row flawlessly. Executing the passage at 120 (by comparison) will seem easy! Also, by exceeding the goal tempo, it will be easier to stay in control of the technique during the adrenaline rush and  nervousness prevalent at auditions and performances.


This practice technique is particularly effective when working on groupings of repeated rhythmic patterns (eighth notes, triplets, sixteenth notes, sextuplets, etc.).

Isolate a passage and, while using the metronome, execute the passage utilizing a variety of altered rhythmic patterns. For instance, if you are working on a repeated sixteenth note passage (such as this one from the first movement of the Mozart clarinet concerto), utilize a variety of rhythmic patterns to help you achieve technical mastery.

Here are some of the patterns you can try:

Test your imagination and see how many more different and challenging rhythmic patterns you can come up with!

Remember, just as for the Rule of 10, establish a playable tempo and observe every indicated musical nuance of phrasing, dynamics, and articulation. Also, you must execute each pattern perfectly three times in a row in order to move on to the next pattern. If you miss anything it is back to zero!  Practice a few varied patterns in each practice session and you will soon smooth out any bumps in the passage.

I hope these practice techniques will help you and your students to achieve greater technical mastery of difficult musical passages. Over time, these techniques will strengthen technique and assist in achieving more consistent musical results.

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