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by Dr. Eldon Matlick, Proffesor of Horn, University of Oklahoma


The first step in making the most of preparation time is to develop a plan. It is essential for the aspiring musician to maximize effective problem-solving techniques in order to utilize available practice time wisely. Planning ahead means prioritizing the preparation of materials while keeping a watchful eye on overall progress.

With students, it is good to set goals of varying length. Short-term goals consist of the successful completion of weekly lesson materials and nagging problems/figures in ensemble or solo music. Medium term goals would be identifying needs for later in the semester. This could be the preparation specific material for concert ensembles or looking ahead at specific literature requirements within the applied studio. Finally, there should be long-range goals. These can address specific performance preparation such as a jury, recital, or competition. Also, this can address a special need such as range development, improvement of technical facility, or ensemble placement. It is important that goals be realistic, especially on the short and medium categories. Once expectations are met and success is achieved, this positive reinforcement gives the impetus for further, and more adventuresome, goals.

Preparation of Weekly Assignments

The first session alone should be a reading session. It is best to get an overview of the material that is assigned for that week. The student will realize that some passages will cause significantly more problems than others will. It is essential that you identify those passages that are clearly problematic. I recommend bracketing these sections with a pencil. Within a particular selection, prioritize the sections bracketed. Which seem the most difficult? There will be sections (or figures) that may need twenty times the repetition or attention those easier sections require.

Practice Time vs. Thoughtful Practice

Repetition is not the same as intelligent practice. Always go into the practice session with a goal or a plan of attack. Bring insight into the practice session. Ask yourself questions about the etude. What are its features? Is there any specific technique addressed? Why is this etude included in the method? What musical problems, if any, are addressed? What makes this etude difficult?

It is not necessary to play material down, front to back at each practice session. Instead, look at those difficult passages that have been bracketed. Iron out the problems within the bracket. Any technical problem can be solved with an astute sense of purpose. In the simplest terms, technical breakdowns occur between the juncture of two notes. It is the part of the musician to identify this juncture and methodically work out these passages.

For problematic passages, slow work is essential. Once the problem interval has been identified, repeated slur work between these notes at increasing speeds will develop the muscle coordination and ear training to make this transition automatic. Slowly (even without the performance rhythm) add a note to either side of this problem interval so that a smooth entrance and exit to the interval can be achieved. Tempo then can be added slowly to help shape the passage. Thus, you identify and work on problematic "chunks" of material. Too often younger musicians neglect this detail work and spend time performing passages they can play and neglect working out problematic passages that are the crux of the piece.

As the preparation week progresses, these difficult "chunks" of material should be chained together. By the end of the week, you will play the material straight down.

  1. Weekly assignment material
    • 1st session read through
    • repetition is not the same as intelligent practice
    • ID special problems-bracket
    • concentrate practice material as you concentrate on honing skills -prioritize-most important? Most difficult? Most easy?
  2. A Question of Balance
    • Do not neglect general maintenance (daily dues)
    • Warm up essential-customize for maximum efficiency
    • -Warm ups: long tones, flexibility, dexterity/flow studies for finger and tongue coordination, scale drill, range extension, sight reading, transposition, fun-stuff -Plan EACH practice session!
    • What is it that you want to accomplish
  3. Difficult material
    • Easy does it-SLOW AND CORRECT are the operative words.
    • Use your metronome to get timing and rhythm. Slur passages to get the fingers under control. Find those problem intervals and iron them out.
    • Identify and perfect chunks of material
    • As the week progresses, start chaining these together.
  4. Ear training
    • LISTEN CAREFULLY! This applies not only to your performance, but also to other players, as well as experiencing a wide variety of musical genres and mediums.
    • There needs to be different approaches to different styles of music.
    • Be aware of the way the horn is supposed to sound
    • When preparing solo literature-imagine the accompaniment as you play. Can you sing your solo selection all the way through, including the interludes?
  5. Vary your practice routine
    • Variety is the spice of life. Do not be predictable in your practice sessions. Leave room for some spontaneity.
    • Do not always work long etudes front to back. Get used to playing the middle or the end while fresh. Bad habits develop if you are always fatigued when preparing a passage.
  6. Go with the flow
    • Sometimes things go well, other times, they don't. This is normal.
    • If you have done very heavy playing, it is very possible that the next day, you will suffer with a stiff, unresponsive lip. If this happens, go very easy; stay slow and low until your chops gain their response. Do light playing after this and then call it a session.
    • Don't play in a fatigue mode. Playing with extreme mental or physical fatigue is counterproductive to what you need to do. At this point, it is more important to get rested and refreshed. Practicing is much more than just "putting in time." Intelligent practice needs a keen intellect and sharp responses.
  7. End on a positive note
    • Spend time at the end of your practice session playing something that you want to play. Do something that makes you feel good. This is especially important after a rough practice. Having bad feelings/energy at the end of your practice will subconsciously sour your disposition and inhibit you returning in a good frame of mind. Productive practice happens when you are eager to get things accomplished and you have a definite plan of what you want to accomplish.

When we practice, it is often hard to see the forest from the trees. I hope these pointers will help you formulate good practice habits. These pointers have been gleaned from years of experience dealing with students of all abilities. I hope they help you too.