Woodwind & Brasswind Contributing Writer – Greg Vail
What is the difference between practice and play? So many saxophone students will say they are practicing and they don’t seem to understand what practice is. The vast majority of the time we have a saxophone out of the case we are simply playing the sax, not practicing at all.
What is practice? The concept is working on something with the goal of making it better. You start with music that sounds bad, and you work on it until it sounds better. It could be just one small thing that sounds better, like now you can tongue it right, or now you can play it faster so it is at the right tempo. It doesn’t matter what you improved on, it only matters that you got better at something. That is practice!
Playing the saxophone involves doing what you already know how to do. When you get your sax out of the case, you likely play a song you really like from an older piece of music that you learned really well. Sometimes playing the same thing, the same way, over and over again. This is not practicing. This would be better called performing, because when you have a performance, you are showing off how well you can play a piece of music.
“Practice makes perfect” is the most repeated statement regarding learning an instrument and could not be any further from the truth. Practice makes permanent. If you practice a line thirty times with a wrong note, you will increase the possibility of repeating that mistake by 100%. The more times you reinforce a mistake, the longer it takes to undo it and fix it. Practice makes permanent. Practice in and of itself, never makes perfect. But, learning how to practice well includes making it better, and should be the process toward getting the music nearly perfect.
Another old word picture for practice was “take it too the woodshed, or woodshed it!” In the old farmhouse days, the woodshed was away from the house, near the barn. The idea was, go and sound bad out there – bring it inside once it sounds better. The concept is true today, without the barn. No one wants to sound bad in public, so get alone with your sax and get it sounding better. That is smart practice. Work on the things that don’t sound good in private and prepare them for public listening.
Some practice tips:
There are many things you need to do, at the same time, to perform a piece of music really well. The best way to approach this list is to practice thru the music, while focusing on each one of the following separately – the right notes, articulation, tempo, breathing, volume, and then phrasing, smooth fingering, body position and movement, vibrato and performance expression.
Too often, impatience comes to play and sax players attack a piece of music, attempting to do everything all at once and never really getting to the little things, like articulation or volume. If you want to play the music right, you will need to go over it a few times, looking at every marking, and you’ll need to focus on each marking at some point. It is best to practice it right from the beginning.
Another important tip is to work on the hard parts first. Look over your music and jump right to the place you see the most black on the page. Your time will be best spent working out the hard parts. If the music is new to you, play thru it 1 time just to find the parts you can’t play yet. You then slow the tempo down, and learn the note patterns.
Each time you play a wrong note it is simply because your fingers didn’t know what was coming. Show your fingers the path, teach them what is coming next. Start slow and then try it faster. Too many young players jump way too fast here. Get the notes under your fingers, and then go a little faster until you get it to tempo.
Practice is tedious work that must be done so we can see improvement. Playing your instrument for fun is also important, but is more about having fun and enjoying the process. Have fun with your horn, but don’t forget to take the time to get better too.