How to Practice

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How to ‘best’ practice??

It’s the age old question on every sincere learner’s mind.. First of all if you’re here and reading this, with any sense of angst to the pursuit of an answer… know this. You’re way ahead of the game already!! The fact that you want to get better, combined with the action you’ve taken to get here, is a sign of your commitment. So well done.

Of course, like all artistic pursuits, firstly I will start by saying that we are not talking about creating a kettle here. There are no fail safe steps that I can teach you, in specific order, that is going to create an actual physical object that mechanically works. So firstly, that is my legal disclaimer I guess. (!)

But .. there are certainly some practices that if you’re dead keen to learn and better and to become and keep becoming the best you can be on your instrument.. well there are things you can do that I will suggest that are habits and practices by the world’s greats, the best instrumentalists, composers and the like.

Here are my suggestions, in no particular order.

  1. Technical Work: Combined with listening, and the love and care of your instrument, technical work to prepare for anything and everything is an absolute must in taking your playing to a professional level. Why?? Because if you have practiced all of your scales so that you can play them forwards, backwards, fast, slow, upside down, in your sleep… 🙂 If you can play all the arpeggios, up and down all the octaves of the Oboe without pause or hesitation.. If you can maintain a good tone through all of that, and you’ve practiced jumping between registers.. Guess how much easier you’re going to find the opening to the Mozart Oboe Concerto in C Major??? Way, way easier. The purpose of technical work as far as I can see it, is 3 fold. Number one – it prepares your fingers and mind so that passages, runs, trills, and so on all come far easier and smoother than you might imagine possible. Number Two, it gets you used to your instrument. If you can make the Bb major scale sing from the first low Bb right up to a high 3rd octave F and back down again, then when you’re presented with those notes in a piece of music, you will be that much better prepared. You’ll already know the note, and you’ll know how to make it sing. You’ll know what pressure you need on your reed, and what cheat fingering you’ll need if there’s an unusual jump. One thing to note about technical is that, if you’re struggling with a certain passage of music, I’ve always found it helpful to break it up the way I would a scale – just for a while – until my fingers know it just as well. So play it fast, slow, in different rhythms and feelings and so on. Play it bar by bar, and then half bar through to the next half bar. Just briefly – and then go back to how it should be played. Start slow, and work your way up on your metronome. If you can only play a piece at 60bpm, then do so, and when you’re comfortable there, try it at 65. The same goes for all your scales and technical work. Practice the right notes. Don’t practice mistakes. If you can’t play something, slow it down and learn the techniques necessary to make it work at a slower speed. Listen to the piece played by somebody else if you’re not sure of how it should sound. (Google it or YouTube it!) And then work your way faster with your metronome until you’re at correct speed. I like to learn a piece until I can play it faster actually, so that my fingers find the correct speed easy and I feel sure. But only do this if it feels right for you. I need to upload a YouTube video to demonstrate I think, and then you should get the idea. 🙂 Technical work should take up a lot of your practice time. When I was in University, I would do a minimum of an hour a day of technical. Honestly, it’s quite addictive. I dare you to try it solidly with an open mind for a week or too – really look at it as a chance to get to know your instrument. After all – – if you can make a scale sound beautiful.. if you can play long notes that give someone goose bumps… It’s all good practice. Of course, you will want to transfer that over to your pieces!!! So don’t get too carried away 🙂
  2. Listening. This may sound dumb, or self explanatory, I don’t know. But when I was studying at school, I was amazed at how few of the other students (we were very young! I was being a bit hard on them haha) had a real passion for music. I mean – for me, I spent hours listening to music as a child. And – therefore – whenever I picked up an instrument (and still to this day!!) I wanted/want to make a good sound. I had a definite idea of how I want to sound in my head. I would strongly suggest you do the same thing, if you are feeling uninspired, or uncertain. Go and listen to music – any music actually. Listening to good jazz, listening to Opera, listening to your favourite pop music even. It’s all music. You are hearing phrasing, dynamics, and so on. Even if you don’t know what you’re listening to – even if you don’t understand yet (or in fact even if you never do! it doesn’t matter) you are still learning. The neurons in your brain are firing off and making connections, and the next time you pick up your instrument, you’re going to have a better idea of what you want, and you’ll be working towards producing that. Instead of squawking like a duck with no mother !! (haha. I’m allowed. I’m an Oboist too :P). Of course, specifically, do listen to your pieces. This really should go without saying. If you don’t know what the orchestra is doing during your passage, you are going to have far less of an idea of what your playing ‘should’ sound like. By that I mean – there are a thousand ways (and more) to play any passage of music. And yes, as an artist you are allowed to interpret music as you wish. However, if you are preparing for exams, or actually going to perform a piece of music with accompaniment, you need to learn that piece thoroughly, and that involves listening to the piece of music. Really familiarising yourself with it. An F played as the tonic of an F chord is different to an F which is found in a Bb chord. They are minutely tuned differently, as the 5th interval is different to playing a tonic. If you’re not sure of what I mean by this, I mean that those notes are actually slightly differently tuned, to be perfectly in tune. I need to write an entry about this, but in the meantime, you’ll have to just trust me. It’s basic physics – the actual physics of the notes we’re playing. Anyway, the point it, you will not know what the music is doing unless you learn the piece. So if you’re playing Mozart, go and listen to a recording of it. If you’re learning twinkle twinkle, go listen to that! You get my message.
  3. Pieces. Well I’ve kind of covered pieces a bit already haven’t I. You will of course have pieces that you’re practicing, and to learn them you should listen to them, and then break them down as I suggested above. I strongly believe in having fun balanced with actually adopting practices that will help you get better. So .. practice correctly. Don’t just play through your piece and never look at the bits that you can’t do yet. You should always spend time on the things you can’t do… until you can do them! Slow down the bar/s that you’re struggling with. Put on a metronome if it helps. Break up the beats until they make sense to you, and play it at whatever speed you can. If you’re not sure how it goes, go and find a recording, or ask your teacher to let you record THEM playing the bar 🙂 Once you can technically get through the piece (ie you know the right fingerings, the rhythm, how the piece goes), you’ll need to put in breathing spots. Hopefully your teacher as covered this with you, and is helping you with this. Breathing is worth a whole book on it’s on, but of course you should know by now that the Oboe requires you to breathe OUT as well as IN. So you need to mark those things onto the manuscript. You may also find it helpful to mark in your phrasing, and any other helpful things you want to remember as you play.
  4. Reeds. Techically reeds and listening shouldn’t take up your practice time at all really. You’ll need time to spend on reeds outside of your practice time. And listening should definitely be in your own time as well! But, if you’re time scarce, then co-ordinating it all can’t be a bad thing. Anyway – reeds. Another topic that could take up a whole book. I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with reeds. I guess most Oboists probably do – although I’ve met a few that don’t seem to worry as much as I do. I don’t tend to talk about it though – what could be more boring than to hear someone complain about their reed?? Haha. Very boring. But.. We must acknowledge them here, and I can only be honest. So – if you’re at an advanced level, you’ll probably be making your own, in which case you’re already learning how to adjust your reed, and probably how to make them from scratch. That’s good. Who knew we’d have to be woodworkers to play our instruments, right??! Ok, but if you’re still at school, or in some countries, if you’re in college, well your teacher might be providing them for you. Hopefully you’re not buying store bought ones. (In my experience, they should all be burnt. What a waste of money. There is no point in trying to play on a terrible reed all the time. It would be like a pianist practising on an out of tune piano – or like a guitarist playing a plastic toy guitar. If you only have store bought reeds at your disposal, all I can say is, good luck, and just hang in there until the day you can afford something better.) I know this might sound harsh, but I can never understand why people don’t understand this concept. If I were to give an Olympic swimmer an itchy swimming costume made of horrible material to practice in every day, they would hopefully reject it and go get something better! Bad reeds are much that way. They’ll force you to over-correct your embouchure, put in way too much effort on the wrong thing, and just in general make your life very very hard. I can’t stress that enough. If you can get better reeds, get them. And if you’re making them, and you’re having a hard time working out what to do to fix things, ask. Google, ask, read books and so on. Make phone calls! I know artist’s are very cagey sometimes, but not everybody is. Do what you can, leave messages, ask Oboists for tips until you figure out what you need to know. Just … don’t do anything illegal!
  5. Just a small section on ‘Orchestral Passages’. A part of a lot of exams are doing ‘excerpts’. These are sections taken from pieces of music, that have a famous or just difficult Oboe solo, if you didn’t know. You’ll be asked to do them usually in auditions for an ensemble too – orchestra or band. Anyway, don’t shy away from this. If you have excerpts, my biggest tip is do your research and find a recording if you can. If not, just treat it like a regular piece of music. Learn it thoroughly and as well as you can. After all, if you want to be the best, you’re probably going to want to be playing in an Orchestra one day, and this is the music you’ll be playing. Enjoy it, and if not, at least get good at it 🙂
  6. Ok, lastly but not at all the least important: take good care of your instrument. Make sure you have the right cleaning equipment, and always clean properly. Always leave enough time for this. Get the bits and bobs you need to make your instrument work. I always use cigarette papers to clean my key pads for example – this is a well known trick, and hopefully something you already know. A big feather makes a perfect cleaner for the top joint of your Oboe. (I’ll show you in a YouTube vid as well.) Make sure you blow the gunk out of your reed and dry it carefully with your fingers. Less likely to get mouldy and smell this way. You should already have a good Reed Case, the right Pull-Through’s and a proper Oboe case. Gig bags are great too of course. An Oboe can crack if the temperature changes too sharply, so you should make sure your teacher is regularly oiling your instrument for you (DON’T attempt this if you do not know how. You could ruin your instrument in one shot.) – and if not, find out who can and will. This is good for the wood of your Oboe, and should be done I think every 6 months or so. If in doubt, ask and ask again.

Ok, well I hope you enjoyed these tips and learned something from them. If you have anything you’d like to add, or ask, please feel free to leave me a comment here. I’ll try to get back to you, and will publish them here so it’s useful for everybody.

I’m going to add in some links to some useful resources related to the above for you below. Technical work should include scales, and exercises of course. The exercises will vary according to your ability. Don’t get bored! Try a new book if you are, is my suggestion. Music should never be boring. Some of my favourite music in University was my Etude book. You can find it here, and I’ll also try and upload a vid on this too. Honestly, I’m not making it up. Exercises can be brilliant.

Cleaning equipment can be found at any Oboe supplier and/or music shop that supplies for Oboes. Also online. I’m going to put links in here for you.

Here is also a good place to buy reeds, if you don’t know anywhere else to, and if you can afford it. They are expensive, but they’re the best that I know on the market. If anybody has a good suppliers link for oboe reeds, please leave it below by the way. It’s good to share. Karma will thank you 🙂 And other readers will as well. 🙂

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