Healthy Practice Habits

When I work with students, I often encounter this question: “How do I practice?”.  There is no single “correct” way to practice, but I’ve used a simple methodology that works for me, and I share it with my students.

I begin my practice sessions with simple tone building exercises (long tones with a metronome, tone imagination, and overtones). These exercises develop not only proper breathing, but also stamina, pitch awareness, and flexibility. I set the metronome at a very slow tempo (for me, quarter-note = 46) and attempt to stretch how long I can sustain a tone. For students who haven’t developed their lung capacity to this degree, I generally have them set the metronome at quarter-note = 72 and work backwards to a slower tempo. I use exercises from Sigurd Rascher’s “Top Tones for the Saxophone” and Donald Sinta’s “Voicing” to practice overtones and pitch bending exercises. Daily practice of these exercises will increase your tonal flexibility, ability to hear tones before playing them, sense of pitch, and overall breath control. I also use a mouthpiece pitch bending exercise to develop embouchure focus.

Articulation and technical work is next. Using Rascher’s “Scales for the Saxophone” and “158 Exercises”, I pick certain scales/arpeggios that I want to work on that particular day (i.e. major, minor, or whole-tone). Simply practicing scales/arpeggios in sixteenth-notes at various tempi is not enough. Everyday (or every few days, depending on difficulty) I choose a rhythm from the “Scales for the Saxophone” text, one that I made up myself, or one from a piece of music that I am studying, as well as an articulation pattern (from any of the previous sources). This then becomes the pattern to practice the chosen scales/arpeggios. Very often, I need to begin at a slower tempo to focus on all of these parameters before it becomes comfortable. I then apply the same articulation and rhythmic pattern to arpeggios from the “158 Exercises.”  Additionally, I practice a line or two of the altissimo tone exercises out of “Top Tones” and/or “Voicing” to continue developing my proficiency in that register.

Finally, I practice the repertoire I’m studying. I try to incorporate Bach (or another composer from the common practice period) into my daily practice regiment, in order to practice good phrasing and sensitivity to the musical line. Recital pieces (i.e. sonatas, unaccompanied works, chamber pieces, etc.) are also practiced. I generally don’t set any limit on how much of the music I’m going to practice. I begin with the first phrase, and if I meet with some success, I’ll move on to the next phrase, and so on.  Singing the phrases is a great way to develop your inner ear and overall concept of a work. I cannot emphasize it enough.

These are just some of my thoughts regarding how to practice. It’s by no means a comprehensive list of techniques, but I have met with some success implementing this method into my practice regiment. If anyone has any comments, please don’t hesitate to let me know what you think.

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