Category Archives: practice

LFCC Progress

It’s been about a month since I started LFCC, and I’m still only part way through phase 1 – which is interval-based diatonic scales with directional changes. I’m nearing completion of just the first page, and in major only. That’s 14 exercises x 12 major keys, going from q=80 up to at least q=160, often up to q=200. It would be a bit faster if I stopped at 160.

The rest of just phase one is the above in minor (1 more month) and then both in 4ths, 5ths, 6ths, 7ths, and octaves. Each interval group is 4 exercises, so this roughly 5 months at the current pace.

Adam suggests 6 keys per week (3 in major and minor) and says “in one direction”… which is unclear. Is that one exercise (up, down, up/down, down/up) or all four?

In order of difficulty, I would say they are:

  • #1 – diatonic scale (12345678)
  • #14 – 4 note segments, up/down (1234 5432 3…)
  • #18 – 4 note segments, down/up (4321 2345 6…)
  • #8 – 4 note segments, up (1234 2345…)
  • #10 – 4 note segments, down (4321 5432…)
  • #4, #22 (dup) – thirds up (1324 3546..)
  • #26 – thirds up/down (1342 3564…)
  • #26 – thirds down/up (3124 5346…)
  • #24 – thirds down (3142 5364…)

Note that due to the direction changes, some of the “thirds” exercises are mixtures of thirds and seconds (22, 26, 28), while others are thirds and fourths (24).

I’m not sticking to 6 keys per week at the moment, but rather going as quickly as possible. For the easy keys, I can often knock off 6 keys (e.g., FCGDAE) for one or two exercises in a single session. For the harder keys, 2 exercises (e.g, Db/F#) in one key is more like it.

Some Critique

I have to guess exactly what phase each exercise is in, rather it being explicit. Each exercise should be marked with a phase number. I believe Phase 1 is pages 1-3, measures 1-67.

The log sheets are organized one page per exercise, iterating over 12 keys. I think it’s better to have one key per key, with only 2-4 exercises on it. After doing an exercise in one key, it’s easier to stay in that key for a while than jump around.

Similarly, I think it’s easier to do all the majors first, and then the minors; or, pair the majors with their relative minors (C major with A minor) as they share much of same notes. The former is more challenging since it gets into F# and B much faster, but it’s helping break bad habits faster.

Don’t Learn It Wrong (IV)

Optimizing The Loop

After you have done this a few times, it should become clear what mistakes you make, and if they fall into a rough category. Jot these down as they occur to you, and return to playing; don’t bother trying to write it nicely. Over time, patterns will emerge.

These will all be specific to you. As an example, here is my analysis:

  1. Don’t really “get” the whole exercise just yet. Countermeasure: back off tempo a few notches or play half tempo, while listening carefully.
  2. Flubbing a finger pattern. Countermeasure: identify and log the pattern, possible cause and solution. Before each repetition, reflect, and think of that pattern before starting again.
  3. Losing focus. This is a big one for me, that I had to break it down further.
    1. Visual distraction – metronome flashing, movement or stuff in the background. Countermeasure: stay more present, close eyes, change location if needed.
    2. Wandering mind – solving problems while playing; thinking too hard about a fingering or countermeasure while playing, instead of listening.
  4. Too long break between repetitions – immediate muscle memory has faded.
  5. Too short break between repetitions – no chance to reflect and absorb the previous results.
  6. Not listening enough – visualizing finger patterns, notation, intervals, keys, etc., rather than letting your ear lead you.
  7. Micro-focus – at faster tempo, thinking of each note individually becomes counterproductive. Think of the sounds or accents in larger increments.
  8. Regressing badly, Tired – If suddenly everything is going wrong, move to a different exercise or quit the session. No shame, you can always come back to it. Don’t Learn It Wrong!

Don’t Learn It Wrong (I)

DLIW” is the working title of how I’m attacking each exercise in a more systematic way.

The concept here is unsurprisingly… don’t learn it wrong in the first place. And the way to do this, is to play it correctly more times correctly than not. Many, many times.

What do we usually do with ad-hoc practice? Play it over and over until you get it correct, right? But all we’ve accomplished is learning it wrong – we’ve screwed up 50 times and done it right twice.

Those aren’t very good odds for performing it well.

I realize this is old news to all the real musicians in the world — “perfect practice makes perfect”. But for the life of me, I can’t recall ever being specifically instructed or reading how to really do this. So we’re left to figure how practice perfectly, and it if we can’t figure that out, well, now we’re stuck.

Simply saying “play it slower”, while true, isn’t enough. What if I can’t play it at q=40, and my lip can’t hold out the notes that long – how much slower can I go? At that point we have to explore alternate ways.

How to think of it

I think as like a growing a small plant. Call it “weed theory” of practicing.

You start with a tiny, fragile sprout. Each time you play it perfectly, at any tempo, that nice little sprout grows a little bigger. Each time you play it imperfectly, it dies a little bit.

Because of its frail initial state, it doesn’t take much to kill it. Worse, once you do kill it, a weed grows in its place. Just like the sprout, every time you play it badly, the weed grows. Now you have two problems! First, stop making the weed grow (“when you’re in a hole stop digging”). Then, kill it – play it perfectly many times. And even then you only get the sprout back.

That’s a lot of work to end up where you started.

Putting it into practice

With this mindset, now we can evaluate every action against both the short term result (did I play it right?) and the desired long-term result (am I learning it right?). After all, playing it right means nothing if you don’t learn it right.

This was a revelation, and it made the work both more enjoyable and more efficient at the same time! Less head-banging on hard stuff. Suddenly, progress through even difficult exercises took half as long as they did, if not more.

As I write this now, I realize it even applies to performance.

It’s now obvious after sight-reading something, there is a limited window of time before we ingrain bad habits. The longer we wait, the harder it is to fix. Now we have a concrete idea of what to work on next, and why.

Maybe this is why all the good players I know tend to take pictures of even moderately-difficult charts on the bandstand. I always wondered why they did this. Surely the pieces was easier for them than it was me, and I didn’t have much trouble. The difference was they were perfecting it, and I would get it 95% right. They were solving their technique problems long-term by preventing bugs from creeping in, and I wasn’t. Maybe that’s why they’re so much better than me! Huh, funny that.

We’ll get in to the specifics, next.

Of Honesty & Pills

Christopher Still:

My first step was to buy a decent recording device. I then rearranged my schedule to include regular practice sessions. Midnight until 3am was the only time I was free, so I also had to find a place to practice that wasn’t my apartment building. Finally, I found a practice buddy who shared similar goals.

I wasn’t sure how to reevaluate my entire way of playing without a teacher, but I wound up creating a great plan–I bought a recording of orchestral excerpts played by Phil Smith (former Principal Trumpet of the New York Philharmonic). It included brilliant commentary and stellar examples of all the audition repertoire I had been struggling with. More importantly, it represented a style that was widely accepted as the industry standard.

I gave myself the following challenge: I would record myself playing every excerpt on the album until I matched Phil Smith. I would emulate Phil Smith in every wayIf it didn’t match, I had to figure out why and record it again. This was not an easy goal, and I worked towards it for years.

Now that’s dedication.

BTW, he’s 2nd trumpet in the LA Philharmonic.

Chris and I started at Crane at the same time. We used to share the long drive from Long Island up to Potsdam, often singing and air-instrumenting to The Cure and Yes. He was a seriously good player back then, and I wasn’t, though we both did play in the top big band.

If you want to take it to the next level as a professional, check out his program. Someday, I may be ready to take that particular honesty pill; right now I have a few years of neglect to catch up on.

“Phase 0” – Getting the baseline

The first exercise in LFCC is, not surprisingly, all the major and minor scales in 12 keys. Goal tempo is 160, as is for the entire course.

Having done all this before, I’m pretty sure I can get through this quickly. But then… at what tempo? With good time? Are there are any minor flubs that should be cleaned up. Can’t improve unless you know where you’re starting from.

So, my first log 1/7. Major keys, eighth notes, q=160.

Indeed I could do them all. But not perfectly.

It became pretty clear that Eb and E need a little work. Not a lot, but it was necessary to dial back to q=144, after which it was straightforward to bring it up to 160.

More importantly, I observed the flubs were all on the pattern F#-G#-A-B, and F-G-Ab-Bb. Aha! Getting off G# is the problem here. They were minor blips, but they were there. How did I miss this all this time?

This is what Eddie Daniels calls “removing the garbage between notes”. Can’t find the quote anywhere, but it was a long interview on how he practiced religiously while working on his MM for clarinet. Oh, and was also playing tenor in the Mel Lewis jazz orchestra at the time.

I marked these two patterns in the margins. It’s worth revisiting later to see if it sticks.

The uptake here is that in about 30 minutes or so, it was obvious where one repeat offender was, in something as simple as major scale. That’s encouraging progress. So I moved onto minor… wait, melodic minor? Ugh. Next post.

I’m ashamed to admit…

This post must be about practicing. I could never really get the hang of practicing.

Sure, I did all my major and minor scales and thirds in college and memorized a few solo tunes for gigs, but I never got in the groove.

Enter a few weeks ago. I was trying to figure out what the fingerings were for contrabass clarinet altissimo register, of all things. I was “recruited” to play in a local clarinet choir, and somehow wound up on contra. The C key has no vent hole like a normal bass clarinet, so I’m not sure how to play above C.

While searching for answers, I stumbled on an advert for (the rather cumbersomely named) Lightning-Fast and Crystal-Clean Saxophone Playing. There was a pretty impressive video of Adam Larson, but what immediately struck me was how detailed the instructions were. This wasn’t the typical book of exercises with some fuzzy hand-waviness on how to break it down and approach the entire project. Instead, there’s a clear progression of exactly what to do and when, and no real decisions to get hung up on.

Specifically, the progress tracking chart immediately resonated with me — I could suddenly see myself working through these a little bit each day.

I figure this way: without any gigs, I won’t be reinforcing any bad technique, so this is an especially effective way to work on good technique. Not needing to pack up my horn, I can leave it out ready for practicing whenever I feel like. Seemed easy to get in 20 minutes whenever I have a break.

The shed. Yes, a closet.

That brings me to this post, I figured it would be fun to write a review of this, but had nowhere to write it. On top of that, I could log my progress, and maybe some help some people that were kind of stuck in a rut, like me.

I forked out the $75 and started immediately. That was three weeks ago, January 5th.

So, stay tuned! Though a few weeks late, I’ve kept lots of notes on how things are going.