I first heard the saying “perfect practice makes perfect” when I was learning ballroom dancing as a 10 year old (apparently the saying is attributed to Vince Lombardi).
The general idea is reasonably obvious: don’t practise mistakes, or you’ll just remember them.
What is ‘Perfect Practice’?
Play the material without making mistakes!
There, done. I could just finish this post now but that wouldn’t be very constructive would it? What is more useful is to share some strategies that one can utilise to assist in this. Here is my list.
My english teacher, Mr. Borok, drummed into us to always state the obvious. Yes, practising slowly is the obvious strategy and here’s why.
Fast is just slow, scaled up.
It’s more than likely that mistakes made at speed are also being done at a lesser pace. A common issue I hear is unclean transitioning between notes, e.g. going from an E to a G (above the break) might result in accidentally passing through F. Do this too often and the music is going to get very messy with all those extra notes suddenly appearing.
The problem with this kind of technical error is that the faster you go, the smaller the error seems resulting in the student considering that it’s ‘good enough’. Slow it down and it becomes more obvious that this issue exists and how bad it really is.
Practise a few notes at a time
After the initial fun of playing through a new piece a few times, the tough slog begins of refining the performance.
It’s really important to avoid just playing from beginning to end. Take a small section of the music, either a phrase, bar or even just 4 annoying notes strung together and temporarily take them out of context. By that I mean forget that they are actually a part of the music and practise them in isolation. Have fun with them; add some swing, mess around with the articulation, swell the dynamic. Anything. In the end, unless one has practised a huge amount of scales (ummmmm, I should have scales in this list) then one’s fingers just have to get used to doing that fingering pattern. Even then, there are going to be obscure patterns that no amount of scale practice is going to save you.
Scales and patterns
Often a piece of music has patterns that move as a scale or arpeggio. The Adagio 2nd movt of Spohr’s Concerto No. 2 is a classic example of this. It’s brutally difficult to play (Grade 8 clarinet) but it isn’t just a ‘blur of notes’. There are descending D minor arpeggios, ascending B flat major scales and ascending D minor and A major arpeggios. Take these scales and arpeggios, practise them, then try and play that middle section.
Wall of sound
Despite what I just said about playing around with some notes, a polar opposite strategy is useful for quite technical passages such as when there are lots of semi-quavers.
The goal is to smooth out the dynamics between notes so that there are no notes that are softer or louder than an adjacent note. To achieve this, play loud, smooth and of even dynamic. Slur when you can, but legato tongue the repeated notes.
Woodwind instruments have a tendency to have some notes more readily play than others, e.g. notes requiring almost all fingers down (clarinet B, C or a saxophone C, D) physically behave differently to the ‘throat notes’ (clarinet G – B flat) which require less fingers.
The result is that when playing technical phrases, some notes disappear dynamically whereas others ‘pop out’. The end result is just really uneven shape. The goal of this strategy is to emphasise smoothness by just playing everything ‘dead-pan’ loud. Loud and even; a ‘wall of sound’.
The next step is to add that shape back in. (Ah gut muscles and air flow. That’s a complete topic in itself. I’ll write about that some other time).
Fix the wrong note minus one
Often a beginner student will make a mistake, stop, then go back and ‘fix’ the problem by starting from the note they got wrong. The actual problem is the transition from the note before to the note they got wrong. A lot of the time these mistakes are with finger patterns that are quite rare for a beginner-intermediate student. E-flat (left hand) C is probably a good example of this.
Play it right more times than wrong
If one were to play a bung note, go back and fix it, then keep playing, that’s a 50% success rate. No one should aspire to that on a test!
It’s a good habit to try and play something correct more often that incorrect even if that requires going super slow. The last thing you want to do is remember the wrong thing.
I have a love/hate relationship with metronomes. They’re incredibly useful for advanced students doing technical pieces but next to useful for a beginner who’s coordination and sense of pulse is still a work in progress (for them a metronome isn’t going to help). The only thing I see metronomes as being good for is for realising when you’re speeding up or slowing down. Don’t bother using them to try and keep a beginner in time; use it to try and prevent an advanced student from going out of time.
Know thy limit
If playing the final stages of Assassin’s Creed has taught me anything, it’s that the longer you play in one sitting (and the more you get your ass whipped by the AI), the worse you get. At 1 am it was time I gave up and have another go the next day.
The same thing goes for practice. There is going to be a point where, after practising some brutal technical passage, that one just has to move on to something else or stop completely. If mistakes start to creep in because of general fatigue, you’re in violation of the the “don’t practise mistakes” principle. Julian Bliss may do 3+ hours worth of practice a day, but he doesn’t do it all in one sitting.
In regards to Assassin’s Creed, I actually passed that stage first time the following evening.
Knowing there’s something to fix
This is so important it should really have been the first point but perhaps it’s more powerful as the concluding paragraph.
When I started teaching I asked my then clarinet teacher (Carlos) for some advice on how to teach (I was 17 at the time). He said, “first find out what the student is doing wrong, then tell them how to fix it.”
This simple advice reflects how practice is done too. No amount of practice is going to help if 1. You don’t know something is wrong and 2. You don’t know how to fix it.
This is why teachers will always have a job because for us mere mortals, learning by oneself only works to a point. Eventually we need an external party to point out all the things one has missed and what the solutions are to fixing them.
When practising, it’s incredibly important to self critique. Is it correct, incorrect, how can it be played better? What’s the phrasing like? Will the dynamics be heard by the audience? Is the style correct? Does the articulation reflect the style? Is it speeding up? Has it suddenly slowed down? Oh my god, that scale run is a disaster, what do I need to do to fix it?!
If you’re finding it really hard to ‘listen’ to yourself, make a recording. Even the little microphone of a smart phone is better than nothing for revealing all the mistakes that you’ve missed.
Want an excuse to buy and expensive cellphone? I need it for perfect practice!