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Measurable Practice

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Measurable practice

Sometimes as musicians, our progress isn’t always obvious and it can be frustrating especially if we are genuinely working hard but seem to be getting little reward. I find it really useful to have measurable targets in my practice routine to help me maintain my standards but also recognise which area might require a bit more work.

Also, because musicians play different music, there can be pieces or skills which were learnt in the past but are no longer easy to do at the current time. For example, if you passed grade 8 as a musician and never played again after it, then it is highly likely that you would not pass now. It is also likely that even if you continue to perform now but do not play the repertoire you used for grade 8 regularly, you still might not pass now.

When you get a new piece of music, how much of the challenge is down to just reading the notes or how much is down to you needing to develop a certain technique which that piece requires. Ideally, our technical areas should always be in top condition, meaning we can focus on making music, learning the notes and not letting weakness in technique drag us backwards. Setting measurable targets can really help this.

I find it is important to work on simple daily exercises but in a way that makes them measurable in order to ensure the skills we have learnt in the past or techniques required to play anything remain with us every day. All you need is some patience, good discipline, a note pad and a metronome.

Below I will give you some examples of things you can implement in your practice routine but get thinking about other ways that you can try this yourself.

1) How long can you hold your breath? Test yourself, note down the time, try and get a bit further every day.

2) How long can you hold a note? Play a middle C (concert Bb), with a nice tone at mp volume for as long as possible. Again, use the note pad and metronome (crotchet = 60) to measure yourself and every day try to improve.

3) Tongue speed. Play a scale with 4 notes tongued on every note in the scale up and down in one breath. If you can do it evenly and clearly then write down the tempo and everyday try and increase it.

4) Range. How high can you play? If you cover your full range every day plus attempt the next few notes up and down then you will always know what you are capable of.

5) Stamina. Play a concerto or brass band test piece all the way through without stopping. How does it feel? If you struggle with stamina at a certain point, or at the end, then try and do the same every day and focus on being more relaxed so you can get through it with ease. When you can do it, move onto another piece.

When you start to notice that your ability in one area has plateaued then you have a decision to make. Are you happy with where you are at? If so then your job now is to maintain that every day. If you think that you are still far off where you want to be then you need to start experimenting with different exercises that are going to push that area along in different ways.

I call this a technique blitz. So if for example, I feel that I cannot get my single tongue to go any faster but know that I should or have in the past been able to do it faster then I will spend extra time on that area. Perhaps using a book like The Arban Cornet Method and play all of the pages related to tonguing.

I hope this blog gives you a bit of help and gets you thinking about clever ways to rehearse.

Good luck.

Mark Glover

Aug 2023

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Aug 31, 2023

This is a great idea, Mark. I've made a chart and will use it at the start of every month. I believe I'm steadily improving. I get discouraged occasionally (about once a day). This chart will prove that I am progressing and, more importantly, where to focus.

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