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What to Practice?

September 18, 2008

This is a post that I was supposed to write last month.  I finally got to it.

As a band director and occasional instrumental tutor, I am sometimes asked, but more often tell students what they should practice and how much and often they should practice.  In my opinion, when a student is just beginning, it is more important to have many “contacts” with the new instrument, than to have lots of time with the new instrument.  When a child is just beginning, he hardly knows anything to do on the instrument.  So, for the first six to twelve weeks of instruction I encourage students to practice for ten to fifteen minutes at a time.  They should do this many times a week and it’s good to practice two to three times a day even–a little here, a little there, until they can produce a consistent sound and know enough notes to practice for longer periods of time.

Once a child has been taught a few things, he should be able to practice for thirty minutes with no difficulty.  (No difficulty=enough exercises to keep him busy.)  Here is the outline I encourage players to follow:

  1. Divide the first ten minutes (or 1/3rd of practice time) between warm ups (which include long full tones and monotone tongue exercises) and skill exercises (which includes scales, intervals, and other technical drills).
  2. The second ten minutes (or 2/3rd of practice time) should be spent working on musical exercises.  This is music that is not strictly technical in nature, but is unlikely to be played publicly.  Their instructor might have a book of etudes or duets that they can be working on for this portion of their practice.
  3. The last ten minutes (or 3/3rd of the practice time) should be spent on music that will be played publicly.  This will be selections from each of the groups they are involved in and music they are preparing to play as solos.

This pattern for what to practice helps a child become a better musician.  If he only works on pieces that will be performed, learning each new piece will be as hard as learning the past pieces.  Developing technical skill and practicing classic musical compositions will enable your child to learn and play more difficult music publicly.

I have not addressed the philosophy behind these guidelines in this post.  I think Kent did a good job of that earlier.  Let me know how this lines up with other teachers’ instructions or with your own experience or your own ideas.

  1. September 19, 2008 at 1:39 pm

    Good, accurate, practical essay.

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