10 Essential Practice Tools

This list is one that anyone could come up with, but these things bear repeating. When you go into the practice room unprepared and without goals, you are cheating yourself out of potential progress.

1. Metronome – This one is obvious. Never leave home (or go into the practice room) without it.

2. Tuner – Use it regularly. Note: do not use all the time or become accustomed to using it for everything. Trust your ears more than your eyes, but check in regularly.

3. A pencil -This one also seems obvious, but I can’t tell you how often I have been at a rehearsal and people ask to borrow a pencil. I pick up a twenty-four pack of cheap mechanical pencils each fall (some of them break, some disappear). Always have a pencil.

4. Drone CD or Drone App – Practicing with drones can really help you establish great intonation. Practice long tones as unison, fourths, fifths, and other chord tones, such as learning how to properly lower thirds and sevenths. Practice Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 with drones on Ab and Db. If you don’t have your drones with you, have a friend play a long tone and use this as an opportunity to blend as well.

5. A mirror. Many practice rooms at universities have mirrors on the wall, but some do not. If you are in one of these places without mirrors, or choose to practice at home, invest in an 8-10 inch mirror to carry in your practice/music bag. Occasionally play your routine in front of the mirror and watch your chops/embouchure for any irregularities. My first teacher, Buddy Baker, would often say, “If it sounds right and looks right, it’s probably right.”

6. Headphones – If you are studying to be a musician or music educator, choose to invest in nice headphones. The white headphones that come with your iPod simply won’t cut it – you can’t hear all the details of classical music (acoustically speaking, they don’t carry a wide enough frequency spectrum). These cheap headphones are designed specifically for pop music and they are designed to have very little overhead for the manufacturer. Spend $50+ on a good set of headphones and you will start hearing things in recordings that you never heard before.

7. A recording device – Technology is amazing. You can now pick up a great recording device (such as the Zoom H1) for under $100.00. Use this regularly. Record lessons and practice sessions to make sure what you hear when you are practicing is in line with what the audience will hear. Use this in tandem with the nice set of headphones you picked up!

8. Music player – It doesn’t matter what type of player you have (iPod, iPhone, Android phone, Zune, Sansa, etc.), but carry it with you. Purchase quality recordings and have them with you. It is essential to listen to professional recordings with good headphones or speakers to maximize your education. Many students now want to simply go to YouTube to find performances of the pieces they are working on. The problem with this is manifold. 1) There are a lot of mediocre recordings on YouTube, 2) The audio quality of the embedded audio is very poor, 3) This promotes the practice of not paying musicians for their work. As future musicians, we should be supporting others.

9. Purchase your music – Without being patronizing, I feel it is important to include this. I understand that is very expensive to be a student, especially one in the arts. There is a lot of overhead for what we do. When it comes time to select a piece with your professor, he or she may give you a copy of the music to look at in order to get an idea of the piece. Once you have decided that you will perform the piece, purchase it immediately. This reduces the wear and tear on your professor’s music and helps you set a pattern of purchasing music. This will slowly build your own library of pieces. Do not perform from photocopied material if it is under current copyright protection.

10. Notebook/Journal – Keep a notebook or journal with you or in your practice/music bag. Keep a record of what you are practicing. Include the tempo when you are working to increase speed. Keep a record of long term (career), semester goals, and immediate goals. These immediate or “micro” goals can include things like, “developing an open sound on the second partial,” or “keeping a steady tone in the trigger/valve register.” These are things to remember when doing your daily routine.

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