Practicing in Rhythms

Let me give you a little taste of what my week was like:

5 dance performances, 3 dance rehearsals, 1 orchestra concert, 4 orchestra rehearsals, 3 work-study shifts, 1 lesson, 1 studio class, 2 papers, a video review and going to various classes each day.  Needless to say, I was in a bind with my practicing.  Try as I might, I simply not able to fit in as much practice time needed to prepare my assignment of 6 etudes, the Sancan Sonatine and the Devienne’s Concerto #7 for my lesson.  

I go in to my lesson, and Mr. Langevin, per the usual, asks me to play my etudes.  “Let’s start with the Casterede” he says. Up until this point, I had planned on faking my way through Casterede’s sixth etude, UNTIL Mr. Langevin turns the metronome on to the tempo written in the score (dotted half-note = 60).  For those of you who do not know this particular etude, it is challenging, with its relentless triplets outlining every tonal triad in about a minute flat.  

At this point, I decide to come clean.  “Mr. Langevin, I was not able to get any of my etudes up to tempo this week…I’m sorry.  I have had all of these [insert excuses here] this week.”  “Ok” he says “What tempo were you able to work this one up to?”  “108 to the quarter” I replied.  Just for reference, that means my tempo was 36 to the dotted quarter, just a little over half tempo.  I struggle through the etude, even at this severely reduced tempo, as Mr. Langevin calmly listens off to the side.  

When I was finished. he simply said “Why don’t you try practicing this in different rhythms for me.” Since this entire etude is comprised of triplets, Mr. Langevin had me practice the entire etude using dotted-eight and two thirty-seconds.  I had practiced using a similiar method using an eight and two sixteenths, however Mr. Langevin explained that the goal with practicing in rhythms, is to make the faster notes as fast as possible while still remaining “clean” or without finger mistakes.  He then also had me practice the same rhythm in reverse, explaining that the long note can be as long as you need, just as long as the fast notes are as quick as possible.  

“Whenever I am in a bind” he explained (which I imagine he would be given the number of services the philharmonic has per week, combined with his teaching at both Juilliard and MSM) “I practice using these different rhythms. It is the quickest way to learn something [technical].”  

After having practiced the etude using the two rhythmic variations mentioned above, Mr. Langevin turns the metronome on again and has me play the etude through.  I was able to get through the etude with minimal mistakes, and little to my knowledge, he had bumped the metronome up from my original tempo of 108 to the quarter, to 120.  So in those 5 minutes, I was able to bump up my tempo by 12 clicks, simply by using two rhythmic variations.  

If you are in a bind, and let’s be honest, who isn’t???  Try practicing using different rhythms.  I have included some of my favorite rhythms to use while practicing below.  Have fun, be creative with it, and watch your productivity increase ten fold!

Rhythmic Variations for Practicing

Passages of eight-notes: Try using a) dotted-eight sixteenth or b) double dotted-eight thirty second.  

Passages of triplets: Try using eighth two sixteenths, or dotted-eighth two thirty seconds. 

Passage of sixteenth-notes: Try using a) dotted-sixteenth thirty second, b) double-dotted sixteenth sixty fourth, c) an eighth note with triplet-sixteenths or d) a dotted-eighth note with triplet-thirty seconds.

Note: All of the above rhythms can be reversed!  Please see the photo below for a notated version of the above descriptions!

Image

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Recording

Let me present you with a little scenario:

You have to record a sample of your playing for a summer festival application, a college application, or you are about to play a recital that will be recorded (and perhaps even archived, yikes!). You practice like mad, trying to ensure that everything surrounding this performance or recording session goes as planned. Your playing is recorded and you get some pretty good takes, maybe even a few that you say, that is the PERFECT take of the Mozart Concerto!

THEN…you go to listen to the recording and the first thought that comes into your mind as you hear the recorded sounds being played back is “WHAT?!?!”

I have had this very experience more times than I care to remember, and I am sure that many of you have too. The night I recorded my college prescreenings in high school, I had to leave the room and cry. My high school teacher, Nancy Stagnitta can even attest to this. But DO NOT FRET, there is a way to avoid this rather unpleasant situation!

My advice to you: record yourself AS OFTEN AS POSSIBLE!

Many of us nestle ourselves into a comfy little corner in our playing, often becoming used to our own aural perception of our playing. Odds are, you don’t sound very much like you think you do from 5, 10 or even 50 feet away. This is what causes that dismayed reaction when we hear ourselves for the first time since our previous recording session, which, if you are not recording yourself regularly, could be once a year…

But if you record yourself regularly, you discover what you actually sound like, or you can at least gather how your playing might be being perceived by others. Fun fact: when you record, you are at a heightened awareness. I am sure we have all discovered that when we are recording, we notice small mistakes or inconsistencies that seemed to never be present before. This is not you all of a sudden making mistakes you have never made before, but now that you are at a heightened awareness, you are noticing mistakes that have been there all along, you were just not aware of them in the wash of everything else going on during your practice sessions.

Now, if you are like me, you might feel the need to record every single thing your play. If you do not have access to a recording device (see links and suggestions below) regularly, or simply don’t think you have the time to record, I would recommend setting aside at least one day, every week to record yourself.

Now let me present you with an altered scenario, where you have recorded yourself at least once a week over a longer period of time.

You have to record a sample of your playing for a summer festival application, a college application, or you are about to play a recital that will be recorded (and perhaps even archived, no problem!). You practice like mad, recording yourself regularly, trying to ensure that everything surrounding this performance or recording session goes as planned. Your playing is recorded and you get some pretty good takes, maybe even a few that you say, that is the PERFECT take of the Mozart Concerto!

THEN…you go to listen to the recording and you the first thought that comes into your mind as you hear the recorded sounds being played back is “THAT is exactly what I wanted.”

Now doesn’t that sound pleasant?

Good luck, and happy recording! See the links below for my recommendations on recording devices!

Recording Devices:

Recording devices of quality often come at a heightened expense, but if you can swing it, they are one of the best investments that one can make in their playing.

The H2n by Zoom is a wonderful, relatively low-cost recording device: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_7_5?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=zoom%20h2n&sprefix=zoom+%2Caps%2C116

The H4n by Zoom is an even more wonderful recording device for a little more of a price (this is my recording device of choice): http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_0_7?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=zoom+h4n&sprefix=zoom+h4%2Caps%2C115&rh=i%3Aaps%2Ck%3Azoom+h4n

The Edirol is a recording device of comparable quality to the Zoom, for just around the same price: http://www.amazon.com/Edirol-R-09HR-High-Resolution-WAVE-Recorder/dp/B0016MLUKU/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1384876684&sr=8-5&keywords=edirol

The smartphone is also an option! The recording quality will not be of the same quality as the recording devices above, but they can still be used to listen for technical mistakes (critiquing one’s sound using a smartphone is not advised!). Try apps such as Recorder Plus or other apps designed for recording material aside from voice memos!

Mixing Up Your Mixed Up Practice Session

Greetings again!

I have been practicing using the “Mix Up Your Practice Session” idea for the past 2 weeks now, and I must say, I notice my weekly requirements (etudes, bumping up scales and exercises to their designated tempi, etc.) happening much sooner into my weekly practicing! Although I am definitely stamping this idea with a “Plight of the Flutist APPROVED,” I have made some slight adjustments to the routine since my last blog post thanks to good old trial and error, as well as the insight of my teacher Robert Langevin.

So, if you have read my previous blog post, you know that the basic gist of the “Mix Up Your Practice Session” idea is to only spend a few minutes on one specific task, before moving on to the next. You cycle through these tasks, repeating some as needed, or practicing in different rhythms. In this way, it reminds me of the secret behind popular work-out routines such as P90X, which is muscle confusion (i.e. not letting your muscles get used to a particular work-out routine) so it never becomes “easy.” So this got me thinking “How can I really get the MOST out of mixing up my practice sessions?”

After consulting with Mr. Langevin, we came up with the idea of mixing up the mixed up practice sessions! Let’s say, for example, you are practicing scales for 5 minutes. Instead of practicing these scales in a straightforward manner, why not change them up by practicing your major scales in one dynamic (piano or forte) and your minor scales in the other dynamic? This sort of suggestion is already built in to the long tone routine that Mr. Langevin asks all of his students to do (non-vibrato the first time, both forte and piano, then a second time on the same long tone(s) with vibrato, forte then piano). So this is just ONE example of how you can mix up your practice sessions even more to reap the most benefits!

Another way to mix up your practicing is to develop a new routine from time to time. For me, I chose to change my routine from week to week. Practicing the same material, in the same order every day for weeks on end, no matter how much you “mix it up” can become just as tiresome as practicing one piece or exercise for hours at a time. Just a small example: the first week, I chose to start out with long tones. The second week, I chose to start my daily practicing with a set of scales. Just this simple change can be enough to revitalize your practice sessions and throw your mind and body into something NEW.

In other words, don’t be afraid to mix up your mixed up practice sessions! Have fun with it since after all, practicing is supposed to be FUN, right?

Avoid fatigue and boredom and MIX IT UP to really get the most out of your practice sessions!

Mixing Up Your Practice Sessions

Yesterday, a wonderful little bird by the name of Nancy Stagnitta (a former teacher of mine at the Interlochen Arts Academy) told me about another lovely blog called “The Bulletproof Musician” (see link below). This blog has a few tasty morsels to keep you going strong as a musician! As I was taking a look as this blog, I happened across a post about getting the most out of your practice sessions and making sure what you practice sticks with you from day to day. Needless to say, I was intrigued!

Since I have started my studies with Robert Langevin at Juilliard, my practicing has been largely focused on Scales and Etudes (with much work on sound and repertoire, but that is a given). While I recognize the EXTREME importance that scales and etudes have on keeping my playing at a high level, I must admit that sitting in a room by myself, practicing an etude slowly and inching up the metronome every 3-5 minutes is NOT how I would ideally like to spend my time. To add insult to injury, I was finding that this method of practicing was not sticking. I would inch up the tempo from quarter equals 72 to 80 for one etude in a practice session, only to come back the next day and only be able to play the etude successfully at quarter equals 74. Going 8 steps forward and 6 steps back is NO way to make progress!

When I happened across this article, it could not have come at a better time. Basically, this article says that it is OK to mix up your practice sessions! NO MORE practicing long tones for 20 minutes at a time only to ignore every long tone at the first 5 or so. NO MORE practicing an etude for 30 minutes straight in 20 different rhythms, then inching up the metronome click by click by CLICK. Instead, after just a few minutes spent practicing one thing, you move on to another, giving your brain a break from one task and allowing yourself to focus 100% on EVERY task at hand without tuning out due to the monotonous nature of practicing everything in large blocks of time!

Here is what a “Mixed Up” practice session might look like:

Length / Material to Practice

2 minutes – Long tone, scale, long tone, scale… (I do B down to E)
3 minutes – Excerpt A (using first rhythmic variation)
2 minutes – Third progression, arpeggio, third progression, arpeggio… (Full range scales C Major to C minor in the circle of fifths)
3 minutes – Excerpt B (using first rhythmic variation)
2 minutes – Long tone, scale, long tone, scale… (Now E down to A)
3 minutes – Excerpt A (using second rhythmic variation)
2 minutes – Third progression, arpeggio, third progression, arpeggio… (Full range scales Ab Major to G# minor in the circle of fifths)
3 minutes – Excerpt B (using second rhythmic variation)
Etc.

From “The Bulletproof Musician Blog”: “The permutations are endless and the exact division of time is not important. What is crucial is that you are keeping your brain engaged by varying the material. More engagement means you will be less bored, more goal-oriented (you have to be if you only have 3 minutes to accomplish something), and substantially more productive. Most importantly, when you return to the practice room the next day, you can start from where you left off. This type of practice sticks.”

I encourage you ALL to try this just for a week and track your progress. I would LOVE to hear comments on how it worked for you, modifications you made to the proposed “schedule,” etc.

I am still trying this method out, but from what I have done so far, I already notice a HUGE improvement in my focus, in meeting my practice goals, and in maintaining an upward trend with the material that I am practicing.

For the FULL details, visit “The Bulletproof Musician” blog: http://www.bulletproofmusician.com/why-the-progress-in-the-practice-room-seems-to-disappear-overnight/