I tell my students all the time – the absolute biggest waste of time is practicing what you can already play.
Even if you are practicing scales, don’t play the part of the scale that you can already play over and over again. You can play it once while you are warming up to make sure your fingers are flexible. Once you have warmed up, spend your time actually working on things you cannot play.
Sometimes it can be difficult to pinpoint, “what can I already play?”
For example, in scales for flutists, the very top and bottom of a scale is difficult. The middle of a scale is the easiest to master and play well. We don’t need to play that part over and over again. If I discover during my practicing a problem around high D and C sharp, I will spend time actually practicing just that part. I will be starting right up there, not in the middle of a scale. I actually put a “box” around those notes, and then excerpt it out from the scale to practice separately.
Imagine a house. You walk into your house, you spend all your time in the kitchen and the living room. You are very comfortable there.
But how about your basement or attic? Nobody likes to go there because it is dusty and dirty.
It is the same with our practice. There are places we don’t want to go because they are scary and dirty, but that’s where we need to go, and go to first. We can’t just come to our practice, sit down in our “easy chair”, and say, “wow, this feels so good.” That is not practicing.
For orchestral auditions I strongly suggest “Nitty gritty” practicing which I explain in my book “6 Weeks to Finals”. This practice method is based on how a committee will be listening to your playing. They primarily listen for these three qualities – rhythm, intonation, and musical intent(which incorporates phrasing, and styling of a piece.) To simplify, I call this: In Time, In Tune and Intent!
During your “nitty gritty” practicing you record an excerpt and on playback, listen to only one of the qualities – rhythm, intonation, or musical intent at a time to evaluate. In a non-orchestral repertoire for “nitty-gritty” practice, I would record a small portion of my piece and follow the same process. You don’t play the recording back and go, “Wow, I sound great” or “Oh no, that was not good”.
When you play the recording back the first time, have your tuner sitting next to your speaker and evaluate the playback only for intonation, setting up your tuner so that IT evaluates the playback as you watch and listen. Then take your music and mark with arrows up or down which notes need to be fixed. Turn off your recording and practice with your tuner again. This time you know exactly what you need to improve.
Then you go back to the same recording of the excerpt and evaluate solely for rhythm, with a metronome “on”. I call this “the metronome game” and it takes a lot of trial and error to be able to quickly adjust the metronome click to your playback, but with practice you can become quite good at it, and it is very useful! Most people can play well with a metronome. But when you take the metronome away and record yourself, you will find out how close you actually are to a metronome, and keeping a truly steady tempo where the music calls for that.
After evaluating the rhythm listen to the recording for the third time. This time focus solely the musical intent. Also, in this playback, look closely at the printed music and be sure you are following every direction the composer desired. “Did I hear the accent? Was this truly Pianissimo or just a Piano? Could I hear my phrasing clearly? Is this the correct style to match the composers intent?
After these three playback evaluations, you are ready to move on to your next recorded example(or excerpt) to begin “nitty-gritty” once again.
If you want to improve your playing to the highest level possible, use the “nitty-gritty” method. You can’t just record a whole pieces and think “Maybe I can change little bit here, or I might be out of tune there.” Work on a section of a piece and be very specific with your goals. Usually after listening to a recording you are shocked at how far off you are with these three criteria – rhythm, intonation, and musical intent, and also amazed at how effectively and quickly you suddenly improve them!
I always start practicing a new piece at a super slow speed. I want to be 100% precise. Incorporate all the printed marks in the music from the very beginning. If it says forte for a passage, learn it forte. If it says piano, learn that part piano. If there is an accent, put that accent in from day one. Expression is a little more difficult to add from the very beginning. You should start thinking about what is the composers intent as soon as possible. Also, begin by choosing your breaths wisely. Make them deliberate, and have them follow the musicality of a piece! One of my favorite quotes is “Speed is the last ingredient”! Make sure everything else is included first, then little by little increase your speed for amazing results!