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  • Writer's pictureT.J. Tesh, D.M.A.

The Practice Toolbox, Part 2: Identify and Isolate

“If you want to feel secure, do what you already know how to do.

But if you want to grow, go to the cutting edge of your competence,

which means a temporary loss of security. So, whenever you don’t quite

know what you are doing, know that you are growing.”

– Madeline Hunter


Let’s discuss the next tool in The Practice Toolbox. If you haven’t already read The Practice

Toolbox – Part 1, take a moment to read it before proceeding. If you have read it, then dive

on in!

– Identify –

Repeatedly playing the things you do well will never lead to dramatic improvements in your

playing. You simply will not win a job just because someone is standing outside your practice

room, listening as you lay down your best stuff. The practice room is the place to get real

work done on your playing. Be incredibly honest with yourself if you want to maximize your

progress by clearly identifying the items that need to be corrected, whether they are

fundamental playing issues or part of the music itself.

Fundamental Strengths vs. Deficiencies

This is one of the most challenging tasks you will face as a performer, but will, without a

doubt, prove incredibly useful for your time management in the practice room. It begins with

an extensive process of self-evaluation. The most useful means I’ve found for doing this is

based on German pedagogue Tom Senninger’s Learning Zone Model.

The “Comfort Zone” represents, as you might have guessed, all of the things in our fundamental playing that are familiar and comfortable. Simply remaining in this zone while in the practice room will yield little to no improvement, since we already have a command of these aspects of our playing. Instead, we need to explore the “Learning Zone,” where we focus on the fundamental techniques that are just beyond our reach. Dedicating practice time to these items, while undoubtedly having the potential to lead to frustration, is a dynamic way to make steady improvements in our playing.

And beyond this zone lies the “Panic Zone,” which contains fundamental issues that are simply out of reach where we currently stand. With diligent practice, the different items we list within the Learning Zone and Panic Zone will begin to migrate inward toward the Comfort Zone. As we begin to acquire the skills in the Learning Zone, those in the Panic Zone begin to make their way

within our grasp.

You can be as detailed as you’d like when filling out this chart. For example, you may find

that triple tonguing high notes, mid-range notes and low notes will locate themselves in

three different zones. Again, this is a time to be completely honest with yourself. This is not

the time to rely on your hopes and beliefs about your playing, but rather on the hard truths.

Once you have broken things down into the different categories, it’s time to get down to

business and start attacking the items in the Learning Zone.

Identify the problem areas in your music.

Far too often, a practice session can become merely a reading session, where we read the

music from the top-left corner of the page to the bottom-right corner of the page. And for

many, that act, in and of itself, is considered practice. The only way that is considered

practice is if your aim is to practice sight reading.

A much more effective means of working your way through your music is to play your way

from beginning to end, pausing to circle (or bracket) the sections of the music that are not

being executed successfully. The next time you sit down to practice that music, go straight to

those circled areas. By doing so, you will make more efficient use of your time, and you will

get more done!

Identify things in your music that you simply don’t understand.

You would think this one goes without saying, but the evidence I have seen proves otherwise.

Whether it is a complicated rhythm that you simply don’t know how to navigate, or a set of

chord changes that doesn’t quite make sense, or a foreign text instruction in the music that

you’ve never seen before, it is ALWAYS worth pausing to figure out what those things are!

The latter of these is one that I see all too often in my own students. It always baffles me

that students see text written in their music, and rather than taking a moment to look up the

meaning, they just bypass it as if it doesn’t matter. The bottom line is that the

composer/arranger would not have wasted their time writing in those instructions unless

they served a purpose. And not understanding a translation is never an excuse… it’s not like

you have to go to the library to look these things up anymore. You can, quite literally, find

the answer in your pocket!


- Isolate -

Time is a limited resource, one that we must utilize efficiently to maximize our growth. For brass players like myself, “chops” are also a limited resource, meaning that effective time management in the practice room is compulsory.

All musicians can relate to the experience of floundering in the practice room at some point in their careers, struggling to find a means for improvement, seeming to stagnate or move backward in their abilities. Those that have found success in this business have discovered the solution(s) to those struggles, means by which they can consistently hone their craft. For me, the willingness to isolate my deficiencies in the practice room, and tackle them head-on, is the most effective way to move forward.

Attack the Learning Zone!

As discussed in the last post, “Identify,” the Learning Zone contains all of the fundamental playing aspects that are just beyond our reach, or at least not entirely under our control. If one truly wishes to maximize their efficiency in the practice room, it is imperative that they dive headlong into the Learning Zone, not wasting time simply repeating the things that are in the Comfort Zone.

I would imagine that most, if not all, of my fellow teachers have had students that have stated, unequivocally, that they “just can’t do ‘insert skill here,’ and don’t know why.” More often than not, the reason for their lack of success with said skill is an unwillingness to approach that task in a structured and unrelenting manner. This is often spurred on by an unwillingness to sound bad in the practice room, due to an irrational fear that someone outside might hear them and pass judgement upon them.

In truth, what someone outside of your practice room thinks of your playing is of zero importance. You’re not in the practice room for them. You are spending time in the wood shed to improve your playing, others’ opinions be damned. You simply cannot approach practice with the fear of making mistakes or sounding “bad” in your search for growth. If you are only playing things in the practice room that sound amazing, then you are not practicing, you are performing.

The reality is that NO ONE has ever, to my knowledge, gotten the gig of a lifetime because the person standing outside their practice room was so impressed with what they heard that they interrupted said practice session and made an offer that couldn’t be turned down! This business just doesn’t work that way.

Go straight for the circled/bracketed areas in your music.

Not only does this type of attack on deficiencies work in the fundamentals arena, but it is a surefire way to ensure effective time management when practicing your music. If you have followed the recommendations from the last blog post, and identified the portions of your music that are not comfortable, then you can save a great deal of time by going straight to those spots and attacking them. Unless you are practicing performance, then you should absolutely not be reading from the top-left corner of your music to the bottom-right corner and calling it a day. That’s NOT practicing… it’s reading!

An example that always seems to rear its head in students of mine over the years is a lack of proficiency in the “hard keys,” particularly while playing Clarke studies. I’ve had many students play through the “easy keys” at great speed, with clarity in their fingers and articulations, only to hear these same students struggle mightily when playing the same exercise in F# or B. Without even having to ask them, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they have spent a great deal of time perfecting the former, only to occasionally struggle through the latter. My advice is always the same… STOP PLAYING THE EASY ONES!!! Make yourself sit down and work through the difficulties.

This same issue occurs in ensemble music/solo repertoire. Many a student has played their jury piece for the semester in a lesson, executing the lyrical passages beautifully, only to get to a passage that’s technically demanding, and completely fold. Yet again, the reason for this failure is most often a very simple one, they didn’t spend the time working on the hard part. And, more often than not, it’s because of the fear of sounding bad in the practice room.

Practice what you preach!

As someone who is currently working to improve his improvisation, I am learning very quickly that my skills as an improvisor directly correlate to my ability to play fluently in the “hard” keys. Oh sure, if you give me a tune that stays relatively close to Bb or F, I have short flashes of brilliance. But if you ask me to play a blues in C#, or, God forbid, a tune that has altered dominant chords and chromaticism, I’m likely to cower in a corner somewhere. Why? Because in my own practice to date, I have neglected those keys/chords, making it impossible to express myself freely. And as those with offices adjacent to mine, or who visit the practice rooms across the hall, can attest, I’m now making myself explore those deficiencies. Do I care if they hear bad sounds coming from the office of the trumpet guy? No! I’m in there to get work done, not put on a show! And wouldn’t you know it, I’m slowly, but surely, getting better at navigating those ugly keys and complicated chords.


Next in The Practice Toolbox series will be the "Slow Down" tool... a concept that’s age-old, but so often misunderstood. I hope you’ll stop by to read what I have to say about it. Until then, GO PRACTICE!

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