Playing a musical instrument is like studying a language, only that the language of music is non-verbal. It’s comprised of many elements that can make it similar to verbal language: it has inflection, phrasing, dynamics, pace…everything that language has except words! We can communicate energy and its effects through sounds, some as basic as banging on things in a non-structured way and more structured sounds created while playing a musical instrument. This “sound energy” then resonates with more subtle energies within us, our awareness of these energies and even our emotions. The energy within music can really change our state of mind, uplift us and help us heal and feel better. It can also help us to express, or bleed out, various stuck energies within us. We essentially “get it out of our system.” Music can have an affect on our overall energy!
Music has the ability to communicate and express so many types of energy. But in order for this to be effective we have to develop the skill of communicating non-verbally with our instrument of choice. Think of what it was like for you, as a young human, to learn how to talk. We first make simple sounds by moving air over our vocal chords and feeling them vibrate. We learn loud and soft dynamics to express our infant selves. We use our sounds to get our basic needs met, like crying when you are hungry. Eventually, we learn how to shape our vocal chords, lips, tongue and mouth to create different sounds. Over time, we learn how to form words, then put those words together to form phrases, then sentences. We develop a larger vocabulary to help express not only our basic body needs but also our emotions and more subtle changes of energy within us. It takes years for us to get to the point where we have mastered using our breathe, vocal chords, tongue and facial muscles to communicate effectively with verbal language. So, with this in mind, it will take you some time to do the same on your oboe. Being patient is essential to the process of learning how to play a musical instrument just like it is to learn how to talk.
To practice is to be practical! It aids in the development of the skill of performing not only in a musical way but also physically working the mechanics of a particular instrument. Practice will turn on and exercise different inner senses. Practice is essential to improving a skill by helping make something more familiar. Practice is to be enjoyed by opening and engaging the mind. The main goal of practice is to make you more present in the activity in which you are engaged. Practice is all about patience.
When putting together a practice session you can approach it in several ways. There are times when you practice where you really have no goal in mind. You simply practice for the pleasure of making nice sounds, for creating a mood, for your shear enjoyment of playing your instrument. While this is a wonderful thing it will only take you so far before you become bored and, therefore, need to focus on developing new and stronger set of skills. You then need to practice to develop your mechanical skills, eye-hand coordination (or brain-hand coordination) as well as skills to effectively communicate through the language of music.
Now, I find that it is often best when you practice your oboe with certain things in mind. Ideally, practice not only to develop your skills and raise your level of self-valuation, but also practice to develop a deep sense of trust with yourselves. Don’t fill your plate too much and take on too many things to think about when you initially practice. It is best to take things more slowly and work on one or just a few things at a time. Over time, you will be able to handle more things as once, but initially stick with mastering just a couple of simple things.
Structure your practice session with the following framework of these three easy phases: warm-up, body of practice and then cool down. Each phase has a different function, all geared towards helping you become a better technician and communicator. If you skip any of these then you only cheat yourself out of becoming the best communicator that you can be. Make it your goal to discover your own personal process of what works best for you in your practice session to help you meet your potential as a young musician, someone who happens to be learning how to communicate, non-verbally, through the wonderful variety of sounds that can be made with an oboe.
It’s always in your best interests to begin your practice session with a warm-up of some kind. Often doing some kind of physical warm up with your body, like finger/hand/arm/neck/back stretches, combined with a warm up on your oboe will always benefit you. Think of a warm-up as a way of transitioning from life’s events of one part of your day to engaging yourself in a totally different way where you make beautiful and captivating music. It eases you into using different senses that you might not use otherwise.
Please see the previous article on the basic essentials in a warm-up on your oboe. Try to be diligent so that every time you pick up your oboe you are spending a little bit of time exploring the basic sensations of physically playing your instrument.
Once you have completed an adequate warm-up it’s now time to work on some of the things that really challenge you. This is compiled of passages from previous practice sessions, lessons and rehearsals that you have yet to master. Basically, you practice little snippets of challenging passages that you may need to smooth out in some way, shape or form…something that you need to become more familiar with. It could be learning a particular finger pattern, learning to use your tongue in a certain manner or speed, making better use of your embouchure to allow a challenging passage to come out more easily or it could simply be to remind yourself of a newly acquired skill. Sometimes revisiting these new skills just gives it a bit more attention so that it can be mastered, like a little reminder. Think of this part of your practice session as building confidence within yourself. Everything that you do requires a certain amount of energetic presence from you. As you increase your ability to focus and be present you also work on your self-confidence.
OK, so now you have worked on a few passages and have increased your awareness just a bit. But have you made those passages strong enough so that when you go to them the next time you get everything to come out exactly as you had intended the very first time? Typically, usually not. “A chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link.” An equal statement would be: “A musicians strength is only as strong as their weakest ability.” Whatever your weakest ability is you will constantly be controlled by it. Your wink links only create frustration, not only within yourself but within others that perform with you. Your weak links hold back your progress until you give them attention. While this may seem unfortunate at first, it is not impossible to overcome. In fact, your weak links are placed there so that you know what you need to practice, to strengthen and to work on.
Practice in the following way as a means of gaining strength to your exercise: play the passage or pattern repeatedly, 5-10 times in a row, and completely without error. If you make a mistake, that is, if you lack presence and awareness at any given moment, then you need to start back at 1. Learn to play with consistency, to be able to produce the same results at command. I guarantee you that you will eventually see results very quickly after practicing a few times with this in mind. At times it can be a challenge to practice this way, but the payoff at the other end of the work is enormous! I guarantee you that you will increase your presence once you develop yourself in this way. You won’t want to stop playing because your finally able to do the things that once held you back from progressing. Congratulate yourself on overcoming obstacles. Once you develop strength you become more confident and your enjoyment increases when playing the oboe.
For most beginners, a difficult passage would be practice intervals that require doing many things at one time. Take the 1/2 hole for example. Using the 1/2 hole requires doing many things simultaneously: rolling your left index finger just slightly enough to vent the 1/2 hole opening, putting down your left hand fingers and coordinating it with your right hand fingers. Essentially, you are moving all of your fingers at once, some in a different manner than others. It requires more thinking than usual and lots of coordination. For example, if you are moving from B to 1/2 hole C#, then this is rather difficult at first. But by isolating the motions, doing them one at a time until you are completely aware of what you are doing, you gain control over your obstacles.
The body of your practice should consist of etudes, excerpts, solos and rhythm studies. Each part is designed to help you gain more control over your oboe by helping you to develop your musical, technical (fingers and tongue control), rhythmical and overall connection with your instrument. They help you to develop awareness’s that you might not achieve by simply playing in school band.
Etudes are designed to help build your technical ability. A good etude book will strengthen your manner in how you play the oboe. Etudes can be melodic or technical in nature, or combine both together. When working with an etude book always ask yourself, “What does this etude have to teach me?” You will soon open yourself to the information that it has to offer. Whatever challenges you may have are clear indications as to what it has to teach you. Practice slowly at first, then increase the tempo only after you have worked out all of the details and can play them all equally well. You may have to keep working on some passages more than others.
Now, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of what exactly needs to be done here. Music is composed of notes, rhythms, dynamics, articulations, breathing, key signatures, time signatures, and other things like phrasing, that are more obvious once you master the basics. A productive practice session will move you closer to a more polished product than further away. It should help you move in the direction of flow, or at least help you to identify where you may be stuck. If you practice in a stuck manner, or away from flow, then you are not practicing with your best interests in mind. It is best to put down your oboe for a time when you are more ready to be in the flow.
You practice to work out details, then later to get through the entire piece at once. When learning something new, most of your practicing early on will be working on the details. After many of the details are worked out then you are practicing for flow of the entire piece. It is very important that you constantly evaluate your performance to see what you need to work on next. But do this in a joyful way and don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Allow yourself to be human and make mistakes. All mistakes have a function and a purpose. You will eventually learn what all of your mistakes are about and where they will lead you.
Another way to practice is to play only the notes but without any rhythm. This is a great way to learn notes and pattern reading very quickly. Your fingers will have a chance to explore how they have to move without focusing on rhythm. Put your metronome on a slow tempo, say 60, and play one note per beat, slowly at first, without repeating any notes. Play with a full and easy sound. If there are two or more notes repeated in a row in the music then get your eye to move forward quickly to the next changing note. Play everything slurred, where all of the notes are connected together; avoid the temptation to tongue each note. Stay calm and keep your air flowing: this is very important! Allow yourself to make mistakes but find a way to get back on track as you play. If you get seriously stuck then stop momentarily to figure out your note, then move on at the tempo you started with. If you keep making numerous errors or stop a lot then your tempo is too fast. The remedy is to take a slower tempo. Play the notes only on the beats, not before, and certainly not afterwards. Instead, play them with the click of the metronome. Do not repeat any notes, instead keep moving: keep things flowing! The whole idea of this exercise is to keep your eyes moving forward, do not let them settle in one area where you feel stuck. Keep moving and stay calm! If this is an issue have someone cover up the notes that you have just played so that your eyes can’t go back to something that you just played. Always keep your eyes moving forward to the next notes! This is absolutely essential when playing music. Training yourself early to do this in a calm and relaxed manner will help build a strong link in your musical chain!
Another version of that technique is to practice note reading much slower, but this time with 100% accuracy. Play as indicated above (slurred, without repeating notes, full sound) but this time you can allow yourself to linger on problem areas. When you take your in the problem area keep your sound going: do not allow your air to stop flowing while you are figuring something out. No matter what you do you still need to produce a sound. If you get stuck or slow down then this is OK, but you must play all of the notes correctly as written minus the rhythm. Allowing yourself time to figure things out is the goal of this exercise. Once you do this, go back to the first way of practicing notes and you will see that you have improved a great deal.
Next, try practicing the rhythm alone. You can tap out the beats and the subdivisions while you sing the rhythm of the melody (not the actual pitches). This helps you to identify when rhythm needs more attention and work out some details. Be very exact when you practice this and make sure that you hold longer notes for their fullest values, meaning, all of the way to the end of the beats indicated. Don’t cheat! Make it as accurate as you can. The stronger you make your ability to read and demonstrate rhythm when you practice the stronger you make your ability to read and demonstrate rhythm correctly the first time when you play thru something (sight reading).
Now finally try this: get from the beginning to the end of a piece, non-stop, with minimal errors. This form of practicing can help you to concentrate for longer periods of time. You will most likely make mistakes but you have to learn to keep going, keep playing so as to not allow one small error to ruin the performance on an entire piece. Don’t stop…keep going! The goal is to get to the end without stopping while maintaining a steady tempo.
As I witness a student who has learned how to do the above mentioned things (create a healthy and steady sound on the oboe, play the correct notes with the required skills, display good pulse and rhythm skills, get through a whole piece non-stop and with minimum areas) it is now time to start working on a solo piece. Solos are great for expressing yourself. You need to use everything that you have learned thus far to express an energy, or a feeling, through the magical power of music! It’s a wonderful thing to do this and will keep you coming back for more!
However, don’t only practice your solo pieces and call it a day! Let’s compare practicing to eating a good and nutritious meal. A meal like this is healthy for your development and maintenance of your well-being, yes? Well, your practice session should meet the same needs. You work on things that feed you. The warm-up is like preparing the delicious foods that you will eat. The meal itself is the body of the practice session, where you work on your skills by removing all of the kinks and working towards ease of flow. Think of it as the healthy proteins and vegetables full of vitamins and minerals required for your growth as a musician. The dessert is the solo piece where you get to enjoy every bite with a great deal of pleasure. You well-balanced meal is like a well-balanced practice session: don’t go to the dessert and only eat the dessert! You must feed yourself with skills in order to make the solo more delicious! Always practice your technical skills first before working on a solo piece.
As you play through your solos you will see what it is that you need to work on. Typically, for young musicians, rhythm is probably the number one weakest element! While it is just one link in the chain of many links necessary to play the oboe, the entire chain can’t be strong if the rhythm link is weak. You could easily fall apart in a performance, whether in concert or in your lesson, if your mess up your rhythm. It’s in your best interests to practice rhythm, along with using a metronome, until it feels strong and natural. Get yourself a good rhythm study book and practice it regularly. Be consistent with your rhythm studies. Everybody enjoys playing with a musician who can keep a steady pulse as well as play with rhythmic accuracy.
Consider rhythm to be an essential element of music just like playing the right notes, playing with a good tone and playing with sufficient air. But give it more value then you think is necessary. Give it equal value to, say, playing the right notes. Those right notes have to begin and end at the right time, especially when playing your oboe, weather you are playing with one or 100 other people. Learn to tap a steady pulse, learn to subdivide the beats as necessary, learn to express yourself rhythmically with a high level of accuracy. This type of work will definitely pay off. Since the rewards are great it is wise to put rhythm studies into your daily practice…hands down!
So, now you are nearing the end of your practice session. It’s time to cool-down, to do things that bring your session to a close and make your transition back into your everyday world as you know it. Perhaps start with some long tones to make the best sound that you can to remind your embouchure what shape it should take, even when you are tired or fatigued. Now try hand/arm/neck/back stretches. Just like after physical exercise, we stretch our bodies to avoid injury as well as the accumulation of stress. Certainly you can do body stretches since we tend to let stress gather in our bodies as we play. We also allow gravity to take hold of ourselves when we play. Stretching our larger muscle groups with help maintain good posture as well as feel more relaxed. Finally, try some deep breathing as a great way to stretch all of the components of your breathing apparatus and oxygenate your blood. But mostly at this point, try taking a good 5 to 10 expanded breaths so as to relax. Breath from your pelvic floor, up through your lower ribs, up the sides of your body, all the way to your collarbones, throughout the base of your skull all the way to your soft palate in the roof of your mouth. Breathe the entire length of your spine! Allow everything to move that wants to move. Allow gravity to take the air out of your lungs in a slow and effortless manner.
It is often asked as to how much and how long should you practice. Well, that is all up to you. How long would it take you to get thru a session as outlined above? Ten minutes? Thirty minutes? An hour? It varies. But we do need to keep in mind that our small facial muscles can only handle so much at once. You need to gauge your session according to how much embouchure muscle endurance you have. Initially, you won’t be able to play for very long. After a while you can play much longer. With this in mind, practice in increments when trying to increase your practice time. Keep returning to your oboe periodically. The more often you play you remind yourself of your activity and strengthen that ability, that is, you become more familiar with the skills of making music. You remind your muscles how to operate effectively and efficiently. Keep returning often to your instrument.
The more often you practice the easier things get, which will help you to enjoy it more, which will increase your presence in your life, which will make you happy, which will be expressed to other people and make them happy too! Learn to play with wonderment and accomplishment. Practice towards flow, ease and enjoyment. By practicing you relay happiness as you become the best person that you can be! You are the only person that is good at being you! Discover who you are by doing the things that you love, like playing music! Practice to become the best YOU that YOU can be!