Musings on Learning Music




It is aimed specifically at the novice group, but the warmup thoughts are good for all (especially the part about THINKING as you warmup!). Also, don't be put off by specific assignments...  the concepts work any time in your music career.

More advanced players, just substitute some other kind of exercise for the reference to Exercise 86 in the book, but read the verbiage about the exercise. Scales and arpeggios are good. Can you play the chromatic scale????? http://bandnotes.info/tidbits/tidbits-jan.htm#chromatic

I have 6 goals for the novice group for this summer, and you can do some work on them even on your own:
- better understanding of rhythm reading
- Winds: tonguing (doing it!, making the sound clean, getting faster).
- Percussion: good firm stroke from the wrist, with clean sound. Working on rolls on both drums and mallet.
- tone/blend/listening to self and others
- learn about playing parts and band music
- increase facility


Every practice session should include
--a warmup
--rhythm work
--technique work (exercises or band music)
--tone, phrasing & dynamic focus (exercises or band music)
--something just for fun that you love to play!
--if your chops (muscles - usually mouth, but can also refer to hands, esp in the case of drums, guitar, piano...) are tired, warm down with low, quiet long tones.

More advanced players, read the material in the Band Stuff Book on Practice and even try the Practice Practicing exercise. It is an eye-opener. I learn from it every time I do it! You can either write on a separate piece of paper, or print a copy from the MS band website: http://bandnotes.info/practice_practicing.htm

Three starter things about practicing that ALL players of ANY level should keep in mind:

  1. Work on small sections. Two - four measures. One measure. A few notes. TWO NOTES! Sometimes, if I am having trouble nailing a high note quietly, I work on only ONE NOTE! Once you have the small section, do another. Then put them together. (You wouldn’t try to memorize a long poem by reading from beginning to end over and over would you?? Don’t practice that way, either.)
  2. Link the sections together. Always play the first note of the next section as part of your chunk you are practicing. Ex: I’m working on two measures; I will practice two measures PLUS the first note of the next measure. If you just play the two measures, then practice the next two measures, you’ve never practiced the link between the groups.
  3. Once you get it, do it correctly at least three times. If you work on something 15 times and finally get it right! Cool, but you’ve played it 15 times wrong and once correctly. What will your body remember??? The wrong way, off course! Practice it correctly several times - at least three so that you get the correct playing in your muscles.



I want to specifically address your warmup time; it is an EXTREMELY important part of your practice. If you are an athlete, you know how important it is to warmup. We are putting a big stress on muscles, too - and for wind players, these are tiny muscles (mouth & fingers) and easily injured.

Your warmup should include exercises that are easy to play so that you can focus on musculature things and so that your body thinks, “Oh, yeah, I remember this!” (My warm up was so ingrained that when I was in college, I used to read the newspaper while warming up! I now know that I need to use that time to think about the muscle movement and review all motions to be sure no bad habits are developing and to warmup my brain!)

Novice players, last week we specifically talked about the warmup and I suggested the following (more advanced players, read through and substitute scales or something for the exercise 86):

LONG TONES with several focus goals as you do them

Winds: (percussion, yours is below) BREATH SUPPORT is a key focus goal - breathe into your "stomach". Feel your back & rib cage expand. Don’t let your shoulders come up, but instead, your stomach extends. Then use your stomach muscles to push the air out with enough strength to get whatever vibrates to vibrate (reed, lips, air column). Remember to keep the stomach firm as you run out of air or the sound gets softer.

Practice LONG TONES three ways...

  1. Hold the note out as long as you can. As you run out of air, increase the pressure of your stomach muscles to help stabilize the sound as long as possible.
  2. Practice your long tones decrescendo (getting softer) until you lose the sound. Keep your stomach firm and LISTEN (second focus goal) as you play. What are you listening for? Pretty tone, no wavering of the sound, evenness, and when in the whole group, blending together.
  3. Crescendo (getting louder). Get louder until you lose control (bad tone, squawk, sound pops up higher, tone stops, etc), then back it off to where you can control it.
    In both the cresc. and decresc., remember you are purposely working outside of your comfort range so that you can increase your strength and control.
  4. You could also try this: with your metronome set at 60, play a one octave scale in whole notes the middle register of your instrument  (I know... I said "three" and this is four!)

**(See Basketball Analogy at the end of the email)

Winds: skip the percussion section and go to the next part of your warmup routine suggestions.



Your “long tones” are long rolls, both on mallet percussion and snare. All players (novice and more advanced) need to spend a lot of time WATCHING their hands and LISTENING to the sound to be sure that both hands are working equally well.

Do one hand at a time and be sure that:

  1. Your WRIST is making the motion, not your arm - your arm should stay still, relaxed, close to your torso with the instrument positioned so that your forearms create approximately a right angle with your upper arm.
  2. Use an “upstroke”. With your arms relaxed and in position over the instrument, cock your wrist so your hand comes up, pause (more now when first learning than in actual play), then let it fall. Do slow single strokes (several in one hand, then several in the other) focusing on the upstroke and a clean sound as the stick/mallet comes down. Don’t let the stick bounce right now. Always end the stroke by returning to that relaxed rest position with the mallets/sticks close to the instrument. Then do an upstroke and repeat.

  3. Fingers snug, backs of the hands up. The forefinger and thumb grip the stick and are the control points while the other fingers wrap around to secure the stick/mallet. (On snare, the other fingers wrap around the stick for single strokes and let loose in a roll so that the sticks can bounce.) The forefinger and thumb grip the stick in the same position that you’d hold a key to put it in the lock. Stay firm, but relaxed.

Use a wrist motion with a defined upstroke, and not making the motion from the arms. Don't try to play too quietly or the stick/mallet can't help you with the rebound. I suggested to Barbara last week that she get a pair of blue rubber mallets for the bells and the sound won't be so piercing.
Mallets: work on evenness in the roll (this is a single stroke roll with no bounces), alternating slowly at first, being sure each mallet is coming up the same height (wrist motion!) and that each stroke sounds the same.
Snare, working on some bouncing in each hand -- bring the stick down, with a little feeling of pushing it into the head, and see how many times it will bounce on its own before it comes to rest. How long the stick bounces relates to the balance between pushing the stick into the head and relaxing enough so that it can rebound. Let your last three fingers come off of the stick so that the stick can bounce. (When you are actually rolling, at the end of your roll, you grab the stick with those three fingers so that the roll ends with a single stroke.) To get the bounce happening, work one hand at a time, with more time on your weaker hand. Again, wrist motion.

As you get the roll happening, work on crescendo (getting louder) & decrescendo (getting softer). To some extent, the sticks move further away from the instrument as you get louder and stay closer to the head/bar as you get softer. In very loud passages, your arms will move more, but for right now, stay with only the wrists moving to emphasize that motion.

Push yourself outside of the comfort range as you cresc. and decresc. You will lose control, but that is OK. Go to that point where you lose control and see if you can focus on bringing it back into control while still staying that loud or soft. Working outside of your comfort range is important in getting more control. (**See basketball analogy at the end of the email).

--> WATCH your hands and LISTEN to the sound! And don’t forget to breathe! Sometimes you can get concentrating and you end up holding your breath! When in rehearsal, breath with the band on the note before the entrance - good habit to keep all of your body relaxed.


SCALES, or for the beginners, EXERCISE 86 IN YOUR BOOK

As I said above, the warmup should include things that are really easy so you’re body is comfortable with it.

Use the beginner exercise above, or Winds, choose an easy scale and Percussion choose an easy exercise or rudiment. Play it three or four times with one or two focus goal(s) in mind. Choose your own focus goal(s), but don’t get carried away -stay with one or two things to think about. Possible focus goals are:
--Listen to your tone (steady, pretty, full)
--In band listen to other players
--Thinking note names
--Counting the numbers in your head
--Tapping your foot on the numbers
--Dynamics (play it loudly one time, softly another, keeping the tone equally good)
--Looking in a mirror to see if your body is working well
--Something of your own that you are working on
--More advanced players, pick an easy section in your music to use instead of the scale, and practice looking at the music, then looking up at the “conductor” (it could be a spot on the wall). Every time you get to the long note, look up.

If playing a written exercise, DON’T PLAY THE EXERCISE MEMORIZED!!! Keep your eyes on the music to help train your eyes of what they should do when seeing that stimulus.

Winds, also:
--Stomach (breath support)
--Embouchure (say what???! It is your mouth position)
Percussion, also: (roll the long notes if you are able)
--Hand position and wrist motion
--Up stroke
--Watch stick/mallet and how it strikes the head
--Watch your hands - do they move the same way? Is the weaker hand weak? If so, spend more warmup time on that hand.
--Listen to see if both hands create the same kind of sound (be sure your sticks are matched - see me if you don't know how to do this)


At this point, you each have something you know you need to work on addressing, so your third warmup exercise is your choice. Here are some possibilities:
--Brass: buzzing with the mouthpiece only (I’d start with this as your first warmup exercise, then go on to the others). Get to where you can slide the sound up and down. Can you buzz Mary Had a Little Lamb? ADVANCED PLAYERS, can you buzz it without the mouthpiece???
--Those struggling with tonguing, Practice saying some “ti, ti, ti” (pronounced, Tee), not too slowly. Then on a note that is easy to play, play 20 or more repetitions of the note, focusing on your tonguing. Listen, too. (I’d start with this as your first warmup exercise, then go on to the others) ADVANCED PLAYERS on brass and flute, how about double tonguing or triple tonguing?
--Flutes, I’ll bet there are notes that you have trouble getting them in the right place high/low! Work on those notes; play the low one and the high one and go back and forth.
--Clarinets, work on high notes. Play down & up from the three finger C (C, B, A, G, F) until your fingers cover the holes correctly, then do those exercises in the book, or the Skill Licks in the Band Stuff Book on page Intermediate I. ADVANCED PLAYERS, do your notes sound the same in each section of the clarinet, chalumeau, clarion & altissimo? (What are those words?)
--Note names (ugh...). Pick a line, or a few measures, of music from your book - say the note names over and over until you can do them easily. Now finger the notes and say the note names. The object here is that you are trying to get your brain to look at the note and immediately associate both its name and its fingering.
--Brass - all brass players have lip slurs as one of their warmups. Each page in the Band Stuff Book Skill Licks starts with a lip slur exercise; try a couple of those. Play the exercise on all slide positions (1-7), or fingerings (open, 2, 1, 12, 23, 13, 123)
--WW finger motion. Some notes are easier to finger between than others. Like, three fingers in the left hand and one in the right and wiggling that right hand finger up and down is pretty easy and you can probably do it pretty fast. Now try the middle finger (still right hand), ring finger, pinky(?!). What about the left hand fingers and the thumb of the left hand! Keep your fingers low. Later you can work on combinations where you pickup fingers in one hand while putting down fingers in the other.
--Percussion - your single stroke work mentioned above can count as your third warm up, or you can work on rudiments (see the band stuff book goldenrod colored pages), or do warmups on both mallets and snare or one of the above ideas (note names...)



A good start is to work on the exercises in the Band Stuff Book, blue pages. Do them three ways:
1- Set up the beat somewhere in your body and speak the counting.
2- Count out loud and clap the rhythm (can you tap your foot, too? Always tap only on the numbers, not the rhythm)
3- Play the exercise using the 1, 3, 5 of a scale. Like in a C scale, the first note is C, third is E, fifth is G. Mix those up and make up melodies using the rhythm in the book as your framework. Use the notes in more than one octave (low C, high C...) You can also add passing tones - more on that later.

Another plan, of course, is to pick out one of the really hard parts in your music and work on just the rhythm by doing # 1 & 2 above and then play it all on one note so you don't have to think about fingers, then add the notes as written, slowly, gradually building up speed.rule


Work on the tough spots. As you play through the music in rehearsal, it is helpful to put a little check mark next to the parts you need to practice, then when you've got it down, erase the check mark. Remember, a run-through is NOT practice. It is diagnostic (where do I still get stuck) and it is very useful as you get close to a performance, but you won't fix mistakes in run-throughs. (See "Practice" on my bandnotes.info website, or in the Band Stuff Book, for suggestions on good practice.)



Be sure to end with something fun!

Then, if you have been practicing a lot of high or fast things, warm down...

Winds: long tones, low lip slurs, slow & quiet. Do "raspberries" with your lips to loosen the muscles and roll your shoulders - stretch out. When you get everything put away, rehydrate the muscles by drinking some water

Percussion: quiet rolls or single strokes. Shake out your hands and flex the fingers, roll your shoulders and stretch out.


Final words of wisdom:

Remember... good practice is hard work and is not always fun!!! The results are fun, though!
See below for the basketball analogy.


**Basketball analogy:

If you want to get to where you can shoot free throws well, do you always practice at the foul line if you can’t get the ball in? No, you’ll miss most of the time. Do you find the place from which you can sink it and always practice there? No, you’ll never get better. What do you do? You start where you can sink the ball and then back up. “Whoops, missed again. Darn, missed. GOT IT! Missed again...” And gradually you can get it most of the time. So you back up again. Etc. When in a game, do you go to the place you know you usually miss? No, of course not! Hot shotting never wins a game. You move in to where you know you can sink the ball and score the points. How does this relate to dynamics?? If you always play in the levels where you know you can play well and get the note to speak and have a good tone, you never get better. When you practice, “back up” a bit. Let the note splat because you are playing too loudly, let the sound not come out because you are trying to play too softly. Those are missed baskets. Your muscles will learn how to hit it every time and then you back up a little more! Exaggerate the louds & softs in your practice. When you get to rehearsal or concert time, stay within the range you know you can do well!

(go back to where you were before jumping to the analogy)


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©Diane Muffitt