By Jacy Burroughs
1. Practice in the morning. If you are on break from school, designate a time in the morning for practicing. That way, you can make sure you at least get some practicing in at the beginning of your day. We all know that if we wait to practice later in the day, we may end up making plans, going out, being too tired and making other excuses not to practice.
2. Set a goal. Whether you are a beginner, a high school student preparing for seating auditions or a college student getting ready for a fall recital, the list of goals you can set for yourself is endless! Maybe you want to get better at sight-reading, learn a new song, work through a particular etude book, memorize a piece – make a goal to achieve by the end of the summer. Set interim goals for yourself along the way so you can check in and make sure you’re on track.
3. Don’t underestimate the power of mental practice. If you are on a road trip or traveling somewhere you can’t bring or won’t have access to your instrument, upload some of the music you are working on to your phone, iPod, laptop, etc. Pack your sheet music, too. If you are spending long hours in a car or on a plane, or spending several nights in a hotel, those are the perfect times to listen while following along to the music. Almost every instrumentalist can practice fingerings without his or her instrument in hand. This is also a great opportunity to visualize how you want the music to sound.
4. Listen! While this may not actually exercise your playing muscles, this is still a very important part of learning and studying music that most of us probably do not do as regularly as we should. Yes, you should listen to the music you need or want to learn for your ensemble auditions and/or recitals. But that’s not all you should listen to. Listen to as many different performers on your instrument as you can. Ask friends that play a different instrument than you for some of their favorite artists. We can still learn a lot from studying the music of other instruments. (For example, I am a horn player and right now I am listening my way through all the Beethoven piano sonatas.)
If you are interested in being an orchestral or band musician, check out scores from your local library of the major audition repertoire for your instrument. Listen to the whole piece, not just your excerpt. Figure out how your excerpt fits into the work as a whole. Does another instrument have the same melody before or after you? Does the theme appear in another movement? This kind of understanding will give you a greater edge in the audition.
(I might add that, on occasion, listening is an acceptable alternative to practicing your instrument, especially on those ridiculously hot summer days.)
5. Work on intonation. Good intonation is another one of those techniques that enough of us don’t practice regularly, but it is what separates good musicians from great musicians. A great way to practice intonation is to play long tones over a droned note on the piano or a tuner/metronome. For a greater challenge, work on dynamic control. Make sure your pitch stays consistent as you crescendo and decrescendo.
6. Practice sight-reading. There are so many fun ways to practice sight-reading, but many of these fall by the wayside during the school year and band/orchestra season because we usually have plenty of music we need to learn. Use sight-reading as an opportunity to play the “fun” music you have been wanting to learn. You can also read music you like that was written for other instruments or find a friend and sight-read duets. Make sight-reading part of your practice sessions everyday!
7. Play chamber music. Get together with some friends or find musicians at local churches or from local music groups to form chamber ensembles over the summer. Pick a rehearsal time once a week to get together and play through the standard repertoire for your ensemble. This can serve multiple purposes. Church choirs are often on hiatus during the summer and are looking for musicians to fill in. If you have a strong group, you may also be able to break into the wedding music scene.
If you don’t have a lot of sheet music, you can check it out from your library. Even if your local library doesn’t have a large selection of sheet music, it will probably be able to get it for you through inter-library loan. IMSLP is also a great resource for sheet music in the public domain. And of course we recommend that you browse our chamber music collection.
8. Join a local summer band. Find out if your community offers a summer band program. If you have a college or university nearby, they may offer a weekly class over the summer. Summer music camps are also an excellent option. While they can be pricey, many offer scholarships, especially if you play an instrument for which they are low on registration. Most of these summer camps require that applications be submitted during the spring, so keep it in mind for next summer!
9. Perform! If you are a college student home for the summer, plan a summer recital. If you attend church in your hometown, they will probably be thrilled to host your recital. If you are going to a family reunion, bring your instrument and play for your relatives. For many of them, it may be the only opportunity they get to hear you play. Ask your friends to listen to you before you hang out. You can never practice playing in front of people enough.
10. Have fun! If you’re in school band or orchestra, no matter what grade level, it’s often hard to find time to practice other music. Summer is the perfect time to pull out the music you have always wanted to learn. Make playing something “for fun” apart of your regular summer practice schedule. Play Alongs provide a great way to learn new music. Play Along books come with backing tracks so you can have your very own accompaniment. We highly recommend Play Alongs from Jamey Aebersold and Music Minus One.
We encourage any additional comments and tips from music educators, students, and performers!
Jacy Burroughs is the Online Merchandiser for Sheet Music Plus. She has degrees in horn performance from the University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is a freelance horn player in the Bay Area.