How do you practice?
As a young musician, I was told to practice but not how. I practiced often, but my practice lacked structure and method, and as a result my progress was haphazard at best. Practice is the most important–but also the most misunderstood–part of learning to play a musical instrument. I want to ensure that my students have a better way forward than I did, and I am certain that anyone who follows this guide will make consistent progress.
What we call “practice” is really just another name for developing a good habit, but good habits never develop on their own. Good habits, like Gothic cathedrals, have to be constructed over time.
Before continuing, I apologize for the length of this article, but the subject is essential. I urge you to read it and come back as needed.
Practice needs three things: tools, structure, and method.
The tools. First, here are the “tools” your child will need: A working instrument, a chair, a music stand, a pencil, a metronome, and a timer. (A practice mute may be necessary if your child plays the trumpet, baritone, trombone, or drums.)
The structure. The backbone of effective practice is this: Break up the practice session into short segments. I recommend using 5 minute segments, but that may be shortened to 3 minutes or increased to 10 minutes depending on the age and experience of the musician. So, for example, if you have 30 minutes to practice and three items (A, B, and C) to work on, do the following:
• A, B, C, A, B, C each for 5 minutes.
Set the timer for 5 minutes and begin working on item A. When the timer goes off, stop working on item A, mark the spot where you stopped with a pencil, switch to item B, reset the timer for 5 minutes, and begin working on B. When the timer goes off on item B, mark the spot, reset the timer, and switch to C. Then repeat, A, B, C.
If you have 60 minutes and four items to practice, the session will be structured like this:
• A, B, C, D, A, B, C, D, A, B, C, D for 5 minutes each
The planned interruptions and changes from one item to the next actually cause you to increase your focus and have better recall of what you are practicing compared to practice that is less structured. A timer (like the one pictured above) is, of course, a necessity.
Zero mistakes. Now that we have discussed the tools and structure, let’s turn to the actual method of practicing–what you actually do during those short segments of time. When learning a new piece of music, play only at a speed (or tempo in musical terms) that is slow enough so that no wrong notes are played. The method is called “zero mistakes” practice, and the idea can be summarized as follows: If you practice a mistake, you learn a mistake.
Don’t use a metronome as you begin to learn a piece. Just focus on mastering the fingerings or positions (students will know these terms).
Once you know the fingerings, study the rhythms of the piece by clapping and counting. We do this regularly in class, so all students should know how to clap and count rhythms.
Once the fingerings and rhythms have been learned, play the piece mentally. This type of mental practice is called fingering, and it involves “playing” the piece without blowing into the instrument (or tapping on the drum head for percussionists).
Once the mental practice has been completed, turn on the metronome, starting at a very slow tempo such as 60 (or slower if needed) and play the song. If you make a mistake, go to a slower metronome setting. Increase the tempo only when the material can be played at the slower tempo with zero mistakes. The next tempo setting could be 66, then 70, then, 80, and so forth until you reach the desired “performance” tempo. Never increase the tempo until the song can be played with zero mistakes at the slower tempo.
It takes patience to use the zero mistakes method, but the benefits are indisputable. Those "lucky" few musicians who are famous for performing “impossible” pieces at lightning speeds practice slowly. It's a paradox, but the ability to play fast and accurately depends on your tolerance for slow practice.
How do you chose the right instrument?
You want your child to be successful on their instrument, but not everyone is suited for every instrument. By educating yourself and your child about the instruments and discussing your concerns with me, you are more likely to choose an instrument that will work for your child.
Gone are the days of, "I'm going to play the flute because we have one in the closet" or "I'll play the trumpet because my dad played it in school." In fact, those often turn out to be the worst reasons for choosing a particular instrument.
Beginners start on one of the following six instruments: 1) flute, 2) clarinet, 3) alto saxophone, 4) trumpet, 5) baritone, or 6) trombone. A limited number of students may switch to percussion in intermediate band.
A student may be assigned to play an instrument that is not his or her first choice. This occurs for one of two reasons: 1) the instrument does not suit your child's abilities or 2) the band has too many students playing that instrument. Just as a baseball team cannot have nine catchers, a band cannot have too many students playing the same instrument.
To learn more, go to the "instruments" page on the Owl Music website. Enter an instrument type and a player's name in your search engine and watch a video with your child.
Where can you get an instrument?
You can get an instrument from one of the following stores. For beginners, I recommend renting rather than buying:
• Bronstein Music in South San Francisco (650) 588-2502
• Heriz Music in Burlingame (650) 344-9414
• Hornucopia in San Carlos (650) 593-3050
• Union Music in San Francisco (415) 775-6043
• Clock Tower Music in San Carlos (650) 595-2024
• A&G Music in Oakland (510) 832-2452
• West Valley Music in Mountain View (650) 961-1566
• Taylor Music 1800usaband.com (online retailer)
What is a concert band?
The Owl program is modeled on a type of musical ensemble called a concert band, although we play other styles of music. Please clink on the link below to watch a short video of our nation's premier concert band.
What are the levels of band and what will my child learn in each?
In beginning band, you can expect your child to learn how to play their instrument with good technique and tone. Beginning band provides the foundation for intermediate band, and students who complete beginning band are eligible automatically for intermediate band.
In intermediate band, your child will continue working on technique and tone and learn how to read music and play in an ensemble. Students who complete intermediate band and want to continue to advanced band must pass an admissions test, which is given in late April or early May.
In advanced band, your child will learn how to play complex music in a multi-part ensemble, where the emphasis is working with others to make a whole that is greater than the individual parts. Advanced band is for students who are willing to practice regularly and take challenges.
What are the other benefits of learning a musical instrument?
Albert Einstein famously said, "If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in my music. I live my daydreams in music." The evidence that studying a musical instrument can make you smarter is growing each year.
Children who learn music in schools do better academically, excelling particularly in math and science. In one study, students enrolled in an instrumental music program had a 61% increase in reading and a 54% increase in math proficiency compared with their peers who did not have instrumental music instruction.
Music instruction has been proven to improve auditory processing, one of the foundations of academic success.
On the SAT, music students scored 38 points higher on the verbal section and 21 points higher on the math section than the national average.
Musicians are 52 percent more likely to go to college and other higher education than non-musicians.
Music majors have the highest rate of admission to medical schools, followed by biochemistry majors.
Brain scans show that playing music involves both left and right hemispheres more fully than any other activity studied.
Is band fun?
Learning a musical instrument is fun, but it requires effort. There are no shortcuts to progress and mastery. The more your child puts into it, the more he or she will get out of it. Learning a musical instrument is a virtuous circle. The more you practice, the better you get, and the better you get, the more you want to practice.
What band events are required?
Band members participate in the following mandatory events each year. Band members are expected to commit to these events, just as they do with their sports teams. Please see the "events" page for exact dates. Please notify me immediately via email if your child cannot attend any of these events.
A Christmas performance at school in December
A multi-school parade rehearsal at St. Timothy School in March
A parade in March, usually the San Francisco St. Patrick’s Day Parade
A Saturday rehearsal in May (for intermediate and advanced students only) at Serra High School
A spring concert in the evening in late May at Serra High School for all students
What is band tuition and when is it due?
Band tuition covers the cost of instruction plus all music and a band t-shirt. Band tuition does not cover the cost of instrument rentals. Band is very affordable compared to private lessons.
There are two ways to pay your child's band tuition:
In full at the beginning of the school year, late August or early September
Divided into two equal payments, one in August/September and one in late January.
Please refer to the band enrollment form for current band tuition. Tuition checks should be payable to the school with your child's name and "band tuition" on the memo line. Band tuition is not refundable.
What are the four band rules?
Band class has four rules.
Bring instrument and all music to every class.
Absolutely no talking when we are working (without raising your hand first)
All music making stops instantly when the teacher gives the signal
No playing before the teacher starts the class
What reeds are recommended for clarinet and saxophone players?
• 4th graders: 2
• 5th graders: 2.5
• 6th graders: 2.5 or 3
• 7th graders: 3
• 8th graders: 3.5
What can I do if my child has dyslexia?
Legendary singer Tony Bennett says that having dyslexia has caused him to struggle reading sheet music. “I just have to work a lot slower. It comes a lot slower,” he says. “But good learning takes a long time. To really learn something, you have to keep doing it until it appears effortless. So it takes time.”
Many kids with dyslexia are successful at learning to play a musical instrument. However, doing so may require different strategies. For a full explanation of learning how to play a musical instrument with dyslexia, visit the learning and attention issues organization Understood’s website by clicking here: Understood.