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How to stop your practice being counterproductive

June 14th, 2017

‘Am I practicing bassoon enough?’ is often something bassoonists ask ourselves. But a more pertinent question may be, ‘is my practising a waste of time?’

The violinist Noa Kageyama thinks that often musicians’ practice can be mindless, and therefore counter-productive. Habits such as repeating the same section over and over, or playing a piece on autopilot, can harm our playing in the long run. ‘You are actually digging yourself a hole, because what this model of practicing does is strengthen undesirable habits and errors’, she says.

Instead, she advocates ‘deliberate practice’, a more scientific approach to practicing. This is a slower and more focused way of playing your instrument, and involves regular observation of where, and – more importantly - why, we’re making mistakes.

This approach is hard work, but you’ll be happy to hear that when done correctly, results can be obtained in a short amount of time: ‘keep practice sessions limited to a duration that allows you to stay focused. This may be as short as 10-20 minutes, and as long as 45-60+ minutes.'

Archie Camden, a famous British bassoonist, in his book Bassoon Technique (P.16, Oxford University Press 1962), writes rather wittily on the need to practice methodically:

'There are many most earnest and conscientious students who blithely recount the hours they have spent at work each day, cheerfully believing that their progress will match the hands of the clock, speeding onwards. To listen to them practice is often to be very disappointed. Most of the time is virtually wasted effort. They will play through scales and studies many times, making the same mistakes each time. If they are aware of them and go back, they will play the whole thing again, instead of picking out the naughty bits and working at them with great concentration until they are correct. Other times they will pick out the bits they like to play and do these over and over again, while the tricky passage lurks round corner and trips them up almost unnoticed! Ten minutes’ hard work at a few little bits is worth hours of aimless 'playing'.'

So let’s take some time to assess our practicing methods. We may soon be reaping the rewards.