Thursday, March 3, 2016

Some Thoughts on Practising

by Helen Paskins
Freelance clarinettist and teacher

Practising can be great fun. I was delighted to hear from the parent of one of my students recently that she happily practises of her own accord. So why is this not such a common occurrence?

In my view, the reasons for not practising are normally far more complex than straightforward laziness. In fact, I am not sure that laziness is ever really the problem and sussing out what is really stopping practice from happening can be really helpful.

Firstly, I think students need to be really clear about what practice is and how to do it. This is where a good teacher can come in. Setting clear, achievable and measurable goals is vital. As I mentioned in my article on scales it is failing that troubles us, what we like best is to succeed. This is why so many people like to practise the things they can do already! The trouble is that in the long run this isn't going to be hugely useful. It is also a good idea to develop a structure for your practice. It can be very beneficial to warm up with technical exercises, long notes, scales and articulation patterns which get the key essentials for good, even sound production in place before you begin working on pieces.

It also enables you to bring your brain from whatever it may have been thinking about previously into musical focus before you start on the main work of your practice.

I feel that all lessons should be a template for good practice techniques. If we can take something we can't do and turn it into something that we can then the practice feels good and will help us to improve therefore, ironically, inspiring us to practise more. The reverse is also true though. Practise something in a rushed, un-rhythmical way or without paying attention to accurate notes, accidentals, articulations or good posture and you will wind up feeling frustrated. Internally you will know that you are being careless. This feels bad. You leave the session not wanting to do anything further. Added to which these mistakes are likely to rear their ugly heads again because the option is now in your fingers. For some reason, bad habits can seem to stick much more stubbornly than good ones which is why it is best, if you can, never to play things without good quality attention. I teach my students to check in with their emotions when practising. They are a really good barometer for how well you are getting on. 

Our feelings are really important drivers in other ways too. Alison Balsom talked a lot about the inspiration for practice in her wonderful Desert Island Discs interview. She described the importance of the friends she has made through music and the excitement of discovering different pieces/performers for herself. The power of the social connections we can make and voyage of intellectual, emotional and even geographical discovery that music can take us on really can help to get us hooked on practising and keep us there. Having friends to chat to who love to explore, enjoy and care about music too can really help to keep you motivated and focused. I have witnessed again and again how a group of students playing music together can create a special chemistry which keeps them all so much more enthused and engaged and how this then feeds into their personal practice.

However, with the best will in the world there is another problem. Children (and adults of course!) these days can be incredibly busy with huge numbers of activities to try and fit into their days. It feels like everyone wants a piece of them. This is where being realistic is important.  I had one student who used to get up early and practise before school. For a lot of teenagers though, their body clocks just can't cope with this. For other people, the problem might be their next door neighbours. Fine. It must be what works for you. However, if you tie practice to some free periods when friends are in lessons or do it every day just after or as a break in the middle of homework or any realistic and regular slot in the week then it is much more likely to be feasible and therefore to happen. Deciding to practise 2 hours a day when you simply do not have that time in your life is only going to make you feel guilty and very likely not achieve much. Ironically, if you commit to a very small slot, for example 10 minutes a day, you will probably do more because having started you will get involved and interested.

This article is in no way meant to be comprehensive. However, I have found that working with these ideas and a compassionate/realistic approach to what can be achieved can be really helpful. At the end of the day, playing an instrument is an incredible experience and fun. It involves solving problems, being honest and patient with ourselves and being creative. If we are open to the idea that gratification might not always be immediate, but that working
rhythmically (more vital than many people realise for satisfying practice),
in small chunks,
and with
care, attention, good listening, imagination
and appropriate body use/awareness,
can lead us to solving all sorts of tricky passages,
then it can be an incredibly rich and rewarding experience even, and perhaps especially, for the smart phone/internet generation.

Being alive now is in fact an incredible opportunity. There are so many resources online to help us make practice even more productive than perhaps ever before. There are websites like to help us with sight-reading so that you can check what you are doing is actually correct. The ABRSM has aural apps to help with aural. You can have a metronome and tuner on your phone so they are always with you. On Youtube or Spotify we have access to an unbelievable quantity and quality of recordings and videos which can inspire us and help us to learn about the harmony, accompaniment or different ways of playing/phrasing the same thing. Using Wikipedia we can inform ourselves in seconds about the background of the pieces and composers. IMSLP will provide you with the orchestra parts or scores for almost anything out of copyright.  Wow.  How lucky we are. Let's get practising!

(I am grateful to David Warwick and Nicola Summerscales for their very pertinent input into these thoughts.)


Helen's edition of 'Syrinx' by Debussy for bass clarinet is published 
by Emerson Edition (E700) and available from June Emerson Wind Music here.

More information about Helen Paskins can be found here

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