By Bryan Powell, Brass Instructor
How do we improve as musicians? Well, how do you get to Carnegie Hall?PRACTICE!
Only through the routine study of our instruments can we make progress as musicians and performers. Is that easier said than done? Of course. We all have limited time, focus, physical stamina, along with any number of other obstacles.
Here’s the good news though: it’s easier to practice today than it ever has been before. In a modern world of smartphones, apps, YouTube, Spotify, etc., we have never lived in a time with more tools at our disposal than right now. When used skillfully, resources like these can make practicing easier and more fulfilling. You can increase your efficiency and become the best musician you can be in the most effective and fun way possible.
Let’s explore some of the many tools available today and talk about ways to use them to practice smarter, not harder.
The three most essential tools for all music students are the metronome, tuner, and a recording device. Each one of these is crucial for practice and will maximize the value of your music lessons. It used to be that just one of these tools cost $25. They had limited functionality and unfortunately didn’t last forever, so you’d be lucky if you didn’t have to replace yours more than once over the years.
In today’s world you can get all three of these tools for the cost of a cup of coffee. I use my phone for practicing and in brass lessons every single day. All modern cell phones are equipped with at the very least a decent microphone and camera that makes recording your practicing both convenient and free. No more lugging a tape deck everywhere! Everything you need is at the ready in your pocket.
Additionally, there are a variety of decent free iOS/Android metronome and tuning apps out there, but for just 2-3 bucks each you can get much more capable applications like TEMPO, Tonal Energy Tuner, or Dr. Drone for example. With apps like these, not only are the ads gone, but you can use hundreds of combinations of tools to target your deficiencies in a way that is tailored exactly for you and the piece you’re working on.
Have a passage in 6/8 that’s in G Minor at 8th note= 120? You can use TEMPO to accent the “big beats” and set the tempo faster/slower as you work on it. Or maybe use Tonal Energy Tuner to play a drone in G Minor with a click track as you practice, and even record your run-through so you can listen back to it at half speed to really see how well you are lining up with the pitch and time. Or say your piece changes key throughout?
Try using Dr. Drone to assign a series of droning octaves to change keys at the time and tempo you dictate, making playing your passage very easy to stay in tune. There’s a million ways to utilize tools like these, as well as many hundreds of different ones available. Try a few out and see what works for you.
What used to cost $100 or more and take up a bookshelf’s worth of space, can now fits in your pocket for only a few dollars.
As performers, listening to professional recordings of music is as indispensable to our growth as it is pleasurable. If listeninging music was a “class”, CD’s/Albums would be our textbooks. Practicing your materials in an informed and educated manner will save you time and vastly improve the overall quality of your musicianship.
Listening to albums in a thoughtful way is one of the best ways we have to improve. If you’re reading this blog, then I wager you’ve heard of streaming services like Spotify, GooglePlay, YouTube, or Amazon’s Audible. Subscription streaming sites like these are a modern marvel. Not too long ago, finding recorded music was an expensive and time consuming ordeal. But today things are clearly much different. For a modest monthly fee we’re all able to access professional recordings of virtually any piece that has ever been recorded.
Practicing for a performance of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony? Click, here’s over 100 major recordings ready to play right now.
Trying to transcribe a baseline from a new album by your favorite rock band? Check out these dozen live performances posted on their YouTube channel right away.
We are living in a time with a wealth of musical riches. Take advantage of it! Always be listening, and don’t take for granted that it has never been easier and more affordable to listen to what you want, when you want to.
With these concepts in mind, I want to add some final thoughts on not what we listen to (be it a recorded practice session or a professional CD), but how we are actually listening.
By this I mean two specific things. First off, when listening to something, are you listening attentively and focused? Or in more of a passive way?
Smart phones are a marvelous tool when used effectively, but they are also possibly the most distracting machines ever invented. So when listening to your private practice or any number of recordings, I would encourage that you do so purposefully. Maybe turn off the text, Facebook and/or news alerts and devote that time to really paying attention to the recording at hand so you don’t miss anything that might help you improve your musicianship.
Personally, I tend to put my phone on sleep-mode when I practice so I don’t get distracted by texts/emails/calls/etc. That stuff can wait till the next coffee or bathroom break, if not longer. What we do is by definition an audible art form, therefore our listening should be tended to with as much care and attention as possible. Could you imagine if a sculptor worked on a piece of marble while wearing foggy glasses?
This brings us to the second aspect of how we listen, the actual devices on which we are hearing music. Yes, many smartphones now have some great speaker-phone options for listening to music, especially compared to just a few years ago. However, they are limited quite a lot by both their physical size (particularly when it comes to the bass sounds). No cell phone’s speakers can compare to the sound quality of a decent pair of headphones or designated speakers.
In a perfect scenario, we’d all be able to listen to our favorite music performed live at all times, but obviously that’s not always a possibility. The second best thing is getting a high quality recording and also listening to it on a good set of equipment. You get a much clearer version of what’s truly happening in the music, and can hear the pros/cons in your own playing with much more clarity. For practicing’s sake, I recommend to all my students in brass lessons to get a basic portable speaker (when financially able), such as those made by JBL, Sony, or Bose.
You can spend over a hundred bucks on many of these models, but most companies offer a budget speaker under $45 that still will enhance your private practice and music listening on-the-go by a vast margin. Virtually all models offer Bluetooth now, so you can play straight from your phone your metronome, drones, and music play-alongs as loud as is necessary, anywhere you need to. Regardless of the model you decide to get, the sound quality alone will easily trump whatever your phone can do, and nowadays these portable speakers are small enough to fit in most cases and last 6-8+ hours on a single charge.
I personally don’t like to use headphones when I practice, though I do listen to albums on them regularly. As a trombone player headphones make it hard to hear myself clearly (unlike perhaps with a guitar/bass for example) and most over-the-ear models actually push against the left side of my horn when I bring it to my head. So what I typically use is my JBL Charge that cost roughly $80 and has performed admirably for almost two years now. It’s the size of a coffee thermos and goes with me everywhere. I am certain there are many other makes/models that are equally as good for the money, but for my purposes as a player and teacher on the go, a speaker like this has been one of the best tools I have ever purchased.
I hope this article has been of some use to you. The big picture here is that if you arm yourself with some of the many terrific tools available today, listen to yourself and professional recordings often and on quality equipment, and practice diligently with your focus on the music, you’ll be able to accomplish nearly anything.
It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to get an orchestral job, or just getting ready for a solo at your local church, if you devote yourself to your own personal goal I promise you that these tools and suggestions can aid you greatly in your practice. This is a blog reflecting my own personal thoughts and experiences, but the world has much more to offer of course. I’d suggest finding a few practice apps that work best for you. Try all sorts of things out till you find that speaker that you just can’t wait to listen to. Maybe Spotify has all the recordings of your favorite genre when another service might not.
There’s countless other articles online about improving your musicianship, many of which you can find among the other blogs on this Lesson Studio page, so keep exploring. Don’t take for granted that it has never been this easy and affordable to access practice tools and recordings. Experiment, discover, and keep on practicing.