How do we get the most out of our practice sessions?
Most of what your learn about playing the horn will ultimately be learned in the practice room. Teachers can convey information, demonstrate technique, sound, and musicality, but none of it will have any impact on your playing if you do not put in the time practicing correctly. I had a very good band director when I was in high school who constantly reminded us that practice does not necessarily make perfect. Perfect practice may make for perfect performance, but incorrect practice only makes very well learned mistakes, so how we practice is equally important as how much we practice. For most of us, and for all students, that means imposing some structure on the practice session. If your practice sessions consist of playing straight through the music you are trying to learn as many times as possible in the time you have, then you are not using your time very efficiently.
What do I do first?
Have a regular structure to each session. If you have several practice sessions each day they can sometimes have different structure, but there should be some items that always occur. So the first thing you do is think through what you need to accomplish, and try to devise strategies to achieve your goal. Most of my sessions have a structure something like this.
O.K., I've gotten to the etude and I can't play it. Now what?
First, stop telling yourself you can't. The truth is you simply haven't applied yourself to solving the problems this piece presents one at a time, in a systematic way. Once you've done that you will be able to play it. So the answer to "now what?" is now analyze specifically what is giving you problems. That might be difficult intervals, or fingerings, or that it just goes too fast. The most obvious solution to these problems is to practice only the specific problem spots, and to do them very slowly. If it is an awkward interval or fingering this 'spot' could be as little as 2 or 3 notes. Slow it down until you can play it perfectly, and gradually increase the speed. A metronome can be very useful for this type of work. Play the spot 3 times perfectly at your slow speed (10 times would be better) then increase the metronome one setting and do your repetitions again until you have worked up to the speed you plan to perform. Do you see now why this kind of practicing takes up such a large part of your practice time? Although this can seem very tedious at first, time can really fly by when you're doing this, so set an alarm if you need to be anywhere.
A simple way to describe this process is diagnose, simplify, repeat. Diagnose the problem. Determine exactly what spots are difficult for you, and try to figure out why. Is it fingerings that are getting in the way, or the coordination of changing the note and valve at the same time, or that you're just hearing the part wrong (that's a good reason to sing in the practice room). Simplify the passage enough that you can play it perfectly. This usually means slowing it down, but it could also mean leaving out the grace notes, taking it down an octave, or singing along while you play it on the piano. All that's left then is to repeat the perfect version until it feels quite easy, and gradually work your way back up to the original speed, pitch, etc.
A Few Tips.
The subject of how to practice takes up a lot of the time I spend talking to students. There is clearly more to the topic than I cover on this page, but this will do for a start. If you have any questions, comments, suggestions, etc. please e-mail me. I do like hearing from other horn players, & I have already updated several of these pages in response to your request.
Next Topic - Breathing