The holidays are for spending time with family, relaxing, and treating ourselves. Music students and professionals deserve a break after playing so much Holiday music, but can’t afford to take extended time away from their instruments. In this week’s blog Heidi Radtke, Instructor of Saxophone at Butler University and regular Classical Music Indy performer, shares how to keep those chops up over the holiday break. Happy practicing!
Take a “Practice Break”
By Heidi Radtke
This time of year, many young musicians find themselves with a much needed break from heavy activity and musical obligations. Whether you have just completed a fall recital, played a jury, or performed the last band concert of the season, having a rest from regular lessons and performances can be a good thing. Yet, despite the urge to set your instrument down and forget about it until the second week of January, a break can serve as a wonderful opportunity to refocus on fundamentals and improve practice technique. For this upcoming holiday, I have encouraged my students (as well as myself) to invest extra time to work on air, tone and technique, either in new ways, or by revisiting routines that may have been neglected over recent months. In other words, take a “practice break.”
Breaks are a great time to establish a steady routine. Try and divide your daily practice into two or three 30-60 minute sessions and stick to these times every day. Devote your first session to long-tone studies, an articulation exercise, vibrato development and scales. Your second session can focus on etudes, band excerpts and chamber music. Finish your practice day by addressing your solo repertoire or working on improvisation. I always try to end each day by reading something new, playing my favorite excerpt or transcribing a tune by ear. I think of it as a reward for a solid day of good practice.
An added suggestion for your first practice session: Whatever time you have spent on long-tone exercises, articulation and scales over the past semester, now is the time to DOUBLE IT. Also, do not underestimate the importance of air support. One sample exercise is to set a metronome to a quarter note = 60 and practice taking a full breath. Take two beats to fill from the bottom up with as much air as possible, then steadily exhale (either with a whistle or “hiss” sound) for 8 beats. Try to be consistent with the amount and speed of your air for the duration of the 8 beats. This may take several attempts to feel comfortable, but the awareness you gain can then be applied to your instrument. Perhaps you also want to learn a new technique such as vibrato or double tonguing. Use the break to devote specific practice time to its development. You might not master it, but you can get started!
If you do happen to take a few days off from practicing your instrument, due to holiday travel or just plain fatigue, take the time upon your return to address a bad habit. Perhaps you would like to correct an embouchure issue, improve hand positions, or eliminate unnecessary tension in your playing. Restart your practice by playing in front of a mirror and keep an eye on how you interact with your instrument. Are you taking full breaths? Are your hands relaxed while playing scales? How is your posture? Use warm-up techniques to rebuild embouchure muscles, with an increased focus on tone quality, hand and tongue coordination, and steady air support.
One of the best gifts a musician can give themselves is a better sound. No matter what instrument you play or what style of music you perform, a quality tone and controlled technique is always appreciated. The more time a musician spends on air, tone and technique, the better results they will have executing music in any form. This season, try establishing a set practice routine that devotes time to these studies. You will notice the difference and so will your teachers! Happy practicing!