Mixing it up

Friday, 29 May 2020

Yamaha Artist Paul Champion

When it comes to practising I am a big believer in mixing things up. Practising everything the same way every time not only leads to boredom, but also means you aren’t developing and improving at the rate that you could be. To improve something as quickly as possible, we need our brain to be activated. Yes, brain use we need to (according to Yoda).

It is human nature to find ways to cut corners and to try to find what we think is the shortest possible way to success. For musicians, it is “practising” a piece by playing first note to last note; practising in the same mistakes and thereby getting better at playing that passage incorrectly; playing things at full speed, mistakes and all, and hoping that it will get better by glossing over it now and again.

Most students I have taught have done some or all of these as part of their regular practice habits. These are habits that are not hard to break if you have been shown that there are easier ways of approaching your practise, and an easier way to improve. And the key to all of this is variation.

Think about the goalkicker for a football team. If they just practise kicking the ball from the same distance and the same angle over and over, are they improving their kicking ability and accuracy, or just hoping that by kicking the ball 100 times from the same spot they will somehow become a better and more accurate goalkicker come game time? Why 100 times? Why from the same spot?

Wouldn’t it make sense to incorporate variation - different angles and distances, and maybe even with obstacles in the way, or other players running towards them to distract them? By mixing it up they would be forcing their brain to activate to find new and better ways to kick. And by varying the task at hand they are challenging their skills so they are more likely to become a better and more accurate kicker from everywhere.

By practising the same way all of the time, we are not challenging ourselves in the way that we should be. If you do the same exercise for several years, yes it might be improving your articulation or finger speed, but are you improving at the same rate you were when you first began? I doubt so. The reason for that is the law of diminishing returns.

We might be getting better, but by not as much as we were when it first challenged us. When you first try something you automatically activate your brain to problem solve and find ways to improve at it. But on the 100th time your brain is on auto-pilot and you don’t need to engage as much.

Here are my tips for mixing up your practise:


  • Mix up the order you play them. Eg if you are working on major scales:
    • Cycle of 5ths (start with C major, then G, D, A etc)
    • Start on your instruments lowest note and work your way up by semitones (so for clarinet E, F,F#,G,Ab etc)
    • Cycle of 4ths (start with C major, then F,Bb etc)
    • Do Day 2 exercise in reverse (so for clarinet Eb, D, Db, C etc)
  • Mix up the way you practise them:
    • In different rhythms
    • Backwards (starting at highest note and going down then back up)
    • Slowly octave by octave
    • Only the scales with difficult high or low registers
    • Break up into groups of 4 or 5 notes and play them in repetition until comfortable
  • Mix up your focus for each practise session:
    • Major and minor scales on day; major and minor 3rds the next
    • One day practise everything on E: major scale, major arpeggio, minor scale, minor arpeggio, Domth, Dim7th, Chromatic; the next day practise everything on F; next day F# etc

Practising a piece

  • Choose a different section to focus on each day
  • Don’t always start at the beginning of the piece or even the same movement. Start halfway down the page or on the second page
  • Use different rhythms or finger practise strategies each practise session
  • Practise it with metronome some days, and other days with an app like iReal Pro or with recorded accompaniment

Long Note Warm Ups (for wind players)

  • Try adding in a few different exercises to your weekly menu. Rather than doing the same exercise every day, try alternating exercise each practise session
  • Start each exercise in a different register so you are fresh when you are working on the high notes or low notes
  • Use a tuner one day, a pedal note the next, and next day without
  • (if applicable) Alternating on different instruments: A/Bb/Bass clarinet; C,Bb trumpet; flute/piccolo

By mixing things up in the practise room we are not only more likely to improve in the areas we are focussing on, but open our ears to develop all areas of our playing. The key is variation!