Practicing Music: There Are No Foolproof Exercises

Musicians love to share advice in an attempt to help other musicians. (I’m no exception.) And it probably goes without saying that some of the advice is helpful, and some isn’t.

One of the most common forms of advice that I often take issue with is when a musician blindly prescribes a particular exercise to another musician to solve a particular problem.

It’s typically a generic, well-known standard form of exercise. Something like, “If you’re having problems with your intonation on saxophone, you need to practice overtones.”

Now, to be clear, as a saxophonist, I find great value in practicing overtones. Not only can regular overtone practice help with intonation, but also, it can help with tone color, control and projection.

So you might ask, “What’s the problem?”

The problem is that unless you choose the exercise for the right reason (the most effective prescription) and carry it out with the right conception, it can actually create more problems than it solves. (Notice I said above that overtone exercises can help you; not will help you.)

Mindless, and/or misdirected practice is often more harmful than no practice at all.

Recently, I gave a Skype lesson to an excellent young saxophonist. He sought my help because of difficulties he was having with tone production and endurance. In short, he complained of working really hard when playing, often feeling exhausted after playing a long phrase.

I asked him about practicing. He told me that he spent lots of time everyday practicing overtones (sometimes two hours per day!)

When I asked why he did this, the mystery of his problems came to light.

In essence, he had the wrong conception about what the aim of overtone practice was. He thought it was (primarily) about “strengthening” the airstream coming from the diaphragm, abdominal and back muscles.

For that reason, he was pushing the air forcefully (very forcefully) into the instrument in an attempt to change pitches in the overtone series. It was all this excessive pushing of the air that was wearing him out.

So we had to talk about what the main objective in overtone study on the saxophone actually is: voicing. (specifically, voicing in conjunction with airstream)

Voicing entails the necessary changes in the oral cavity (soft palate, tongue, etc.) to accommodate the vibrations from the reed and mouthpiece. When a saxophonist has good intonation, a powerful and colorful sound, voicing is playing a major role.

When practiced with this aim  in mind, overtones help a saxophonist cultivate a responsive, flexible, well-coordinated oral cavity/vocal tract/ airstream combination.

But all this overtone practice was making this saxophonist work harder and less efficiently. His conception was that overtone exercises are about increasing strength, when in reality, they are about improving coordination.

So why did he spend so much time on overtones? Because that was the conventional advice given him by many well-respected saxophonists. To them, it was foolproof. “Work on overtones, solve your problem.” It’s a no-brainer.

Not necessarily, so it seems.

By clarifying the aim  of overtone practice, this saxophonist gave himself a chance to change his habits: less jaw tension (his jaw was doing the work of his vocal tract); less tension in his shoulders and back; better able to hear and respond to his actual sound.

And so it is with any exercise. As an Alexander Technique teacher, it is not unusual for me to encounter musicians who have religiously practiced exercises in a fundamentally misdirected way.

If you’ve been practicing the same type of “foolproof” exercise for many months (or even years), yet the problem you have that led you into choosing this exercise is not significantly lessened, you might want to reconsider your choices. Here are three things to keep in mind when considering an exercise:

1. Know why you’ve chosen a particular exercise. Try not to blindly trust the advice of others. Make it a point to understand cause and effect: “This will help me improve because…” You should be able to fill in the blank because you understand the physiological as well as the mechanical principles being brought into play. Is it an issue of strength? (it rarely is, by the way); Is it an issue of coordination? Hearing? Air flow? Time and/or rhythm?

2. Make sure you know what the specific aim of the exercise is. See that your conscious intentions (i.e., the desired outcome) is in line with your efforts as you practice. You should have a clear idea of what a successful attempt and outcome is as you practice the exercise. For example, “my resonance increases”, “my pitch becomes more stable”, “my execution of sixteenth notes becomes more even and balanced”, etc.

3. Pay attention to how you use yourself when you carry out the exercise. Don’t stiffen yourself in an over-efforting manner as you carry out the exercise. Let your head, neck, shoulders and back be free and mobile. No exercise in music should make your entire body exhausted from just a few minutes of practice.

Keep these things in mind, and remain a healthy skeptic when it comes to advice. In the end, it’s not so much what  you practice, as it is why  and  how  you practice it.

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