Setting The Goalposts
A while back I wrote a blog about practising what you preach, and it got me thinking. I decided that in this case I would let myself off, I eventually did get back to finishing the warm-up exercise plus I got a tune composed. (But did I write it down, is it in my subconscious or have I totally forgotten it? More on that later. The question got begged though – how do you make sure you can always (or as far as possible) keep your practising ordered and not jump from one thing to another so nothing really gets achieved?
The important thing is to set various goals – aim for something you can achieve and always keep this in mind. It may just mean learning one scale, or it could be learning a certain pattern in all keys, or it could be working something up to a specific tempo.You can have various smaller goals, but also one big one, e.g. by the end of this week I will learn a harmonic minor scale in the keys of Am, Dm, Gm, Cm and Fm, but by the end of the year I will play all major and minor scales in all keys. You will find it’s incredibly useful to be able to measure your steps forward, using a metronome is invaluable. Once you have learnt a scale for instance, that’s not the end of it. You need to play it:
- In time with the metronome
- Gradually be able to play at faster tempos (always staying in time)
- Playing it with different articulations (tongued, legato, staccato etc – and always staying in time)
Important: The goal must be just right. Too easy and you achieve nothing, too hard and you will get frustrated, lose concentration and possibly get depressed about the whole idea of learning the saxophone. If you are not able to work out these goals (and at first it can be difficult to evaluate possible improvement), then this is something you must do with the aid of a good teacher – who (ideally) would already be doing something like this.
As a teacher I used to devise a different practice schedule for each student as different people have different requirements when practising the saxophone, so the following is quite general and may not suit everyone. However there is one key element to successful and efficient practising, that is concentration.To learn the saxophone it is important to be able to focus the mind – a short session in which you are focussing on, listening to and thinking about what your breath, tongue and fingers are doing is much better than one long session in which your mind is wandering – you will end up learning more in the shorter more focussed session..
How Long to Practise?
If you are at all serious about learning the saxophone, a minimum daily requirement would be 30 minutes practice, but ideally at least an hour. If you intend to become professional then at least 2-3 hours daily is appropriate. It should be possible to practice all day, but remember that once you are no longer concentrating, the practice session becomes much less worthwhile.
General Hints & Tips
- Don’t get obsessive about one thing, if something is very difficult it can be better to take a few days break then come back to it. I have often found that when you do, there is a mysterious improvement even though you have not practised that thing.
- If you find your mind is not able to concentrate on practicing, then find something else to do. This could be unrelated like doing some sport, reading or just living. If you want to find something saxophone related then try learning some music theory or transcribing a solo
- Thirty minutes daily practice is better than 7 hours a week all in one day
- If you feel inhibited due to neighbours complaining try to find somewhere else where you feel totally at ease and able to play as loud as you like
- If you have trouble with concentration, try some simple courses in yoga or meditation
- If you are unable to practise the saxophone, e.g. when travelling, you can still practise breathing exercises (and tongue articulation – try repeating
t-t-t-t-tas evenly as possible, gradually work up the tempo).
- Frequent short sessions in which your mind is concentrating is better than one longer session in which you cannot concentrate. If you are able and happy to spend many hours per day practising, take frequent breaks to help keep your mind fresh.
Organising Your Practising Time
Divide your practice session into three main areas. Alternate between these so as to minimise boredom or lack of concentration:
- Tone – long notes, breathing exercises etc
- Technical facility – fingering exercises, scales, arpeggios
- Music – Playing (and learning) tunes and licks, having fun playing along with CDs etc.
My preference is to practise in this order. Tone exercises are the hardest to concentrate on for many people, it is easy to let your mind wander while playing long notes. You get the most benefit if you can really focus on the sound and
get inside it. I find this easier at the start of the practice session (ideally early in the day also) when your mind is freshest and able to concentrate.
In any session longer than one hour I recommend that you rotate the above three areas, so start on tone again after an hour.