Practicing For Your Students

By Mike Vaccaro
(from Mike's Musings #16, our newsletter)

As teachers, we have all been advising students, demonstrating for students, showing students shortcuts, and teaching students how to practice. I would dare say we never practice for our students.

Recently, I took the opportunity to practice for one of my advanced students. I felt that he'd never really fully understood how to practice, no matter how I suggested he do it. I took a very difficult piece I've been practicing for several months, but have not yet mastered, and let him see how I approached it.

I asked him to not talk during my practice session, but to only listen and watch. In addition to working on the piece of music, a clarinet quintet by John Scott, I was also finishing up adjusting reeds that would work for the piece. So at times, I would stop and make minor final adjustments to the reed so it would feel the most comfortable for that particular piece of music.

This was the first time I'd ever practiced in front of anyone except my own teachers.

My student was amazed, and said he learned a lot. He was particularly interested to see that, when I had even a minor mishap, I would go back and go over the passage several times very slowly, which my friend Gerry Schroeder calls “tempo de learno”. Of course, I had been suggesting this to him for years.  As I gradually brought the phrase up to tempo and was able to play it, the student immediately understood not only the idea of seeing the music and hearing the phrase, finding the weak notes in the phrase, but he could also see and hear the finger memory being learned along with the nuance of the phrase (which notes belong together). He also learned how quickly a phrase can be mastered when starting slow and increasing the speed and not just slopping over it and assuming it is good enough.

The student also understood the refinement of the reed and how the reed can actually make the piece easier by being balanced and voiced for ease of playing for the mouthpiece, instrument and repertoire.

It made me think that, although I have very few students, I should do this with each of them.

For the beginners, I would play long tones, practice a couple of simple scales or portions of scales (say 12345-4321) and play out of their particular study book. For the intermediate student ,I would remind them how to warm up on the chromatic exercise as I've shown in previous broadcasts. (See This would remind them of the interaction between the tone and the fingers. Then I would practice some scales for them and approach the idea of improvising. Then, of course, we would discuss their study book and the literature they might be working on.

The Bottom line is that I think it is important to practice for our students during a lesson occasionally, so they see and understand the intensity and commitment of practicing, and how much faster they can improve if they practice correctly.

Have you ever practiced for a student?

I still live by the thought that it is not only how long a student (or anyone for that matter) practices, but it's the regularity at which they practice. With regularity, we can’t help but practice more, as the act of practicing is interesting, and as one improves and it becomes easier to get better, the interest just normally increases.

I heard a quote not long ago and I don’t remember who told it to me but it goes like this, and I most likely paraphrase.

“Rehearsals are not for you to practice; they are the opportunity for you
to hear what others have practiced.

That implies that one must come to band and orchestra rehearsals fully prepared, and to approach the ensemble as if the conductor may ask you to play the hardest section in the composition alone.

So my student friends....... know your part before you get to rehearsal, even if it is a community band, orchestra, or chamber ensemble and you are all doing it just for “fun”. It’s a lot more fun if everyone knows their part.

We have talked before about fear and intent and someone shared this YouTube video with me recently. Though it is the actor Bryan Cranston talking about his craft, it is also relevant to musicians as it gets down to the essence of what we do and how it effects those around us. This video could help you win an audition or have a much nicer time performing, as it clears up what is important in any artistic endeavor.

Some Quotes From My Diary

"We fear most which never happens"
Napoleon Hill
"Life’s greatest inconsistency is the fact that most of what we believe is not true"
Napoleon Hill
"An aim in life is the only thing worth finding, and it is not to be found in foreign lands but in the heart itself"
Robert Lewis Stevenson

"Take my advice, I am not using it."
Walter Woods

"Practice and hope, but never hope more than you practice"
Kal Opperman

"When thinking about life, remember this: No amount of guilt can change the past - and no amount of anxiety can change the future."