I’m currently in the pit with the Laurel Little Theatre production of 9 To 5, and I was just thinking about how this challenge is different from my other types of musical challenges, and how much I enjoy it – and especially how much I learn from it. This show is a particular challenge for me, because I’m juggling both reed books and doing the best I can to cover the most important parts from each one. This means I’m frequently leaving a saxophone hanging while I pick up and flute or clarinet and jump in 7 or 8 beats later. Going the opposite direction is not such a big deal. Sax is my first instrument, and I can switch to it quickly without really thinking about it. But picking up clarinet or flute and quickly getting all the fundamentals in place for good pitch, tone and articulation is still a challenge for me. As the show goes on, I am constantly analyzing my own playing, my own entrances, crescendos, decrescendos, etc. etc. and thinking about what went well/wrong, and how I can preserve/fix those things in my future playing.
So as I was thinking about this, it occurred to me that I never practice like this at home. I never really put myself under the gun for quick changes. I just did my final Masters recital 10 days ago, but it was a completely different type of challenge, with plenty of time between instruments. The main issue there was simply fatigue – playing for an hour straight on four different instruments. In the pit, there aren’t many long blows like that – but there are plenty of frantic switches from one horn to the next.
So my take-away from this is that I need to practice switching more often. My normal practice session is to have only one horn out, and to play it for 45 minutes to an hour. This is great for getting a good warmup, practicing scales, and working on an etude or piece of music. But it’s also deprives me of the opportunity to reinforce the most basic skills, such as bringing the flute up quickly to the right place on the lips, or quickly making the breath support changes from a resistant instrument (say oboe or clarinet) to a less resistant instrument like flute (or vice versa).
What does this mean for my practicing? Well, mainly it means that I need to start putting some instrument switching into my practice routine. When I can, I set aside several hours and practice two or three instruments in a row – but each segment is entirely for one instrument, and then I put it away and pull out another. There really is no reason why I couldn’t set all those instruments up at the beginning of the practice session, and then occasionally switch to another instrument. In fact, it might be helpful to make some of these switches essentially at random intervals. Perhaps I could get my girlfriend to stop in randomly and pick one for me to switch to. Or maybe I could put the instrument names on paper tags in a hat and set an egg timer for every 15 minutes, at which time I have to grab another instrument out of the hat? I’m not sure exactly how to implement this, but I think it will pay big dividends for me in the future. My feeling is that this will not only help me with fast changes, but should also help me solidify the fundamentals, so they are more automatic, all the time, on all my instruments.
As always, I would love to hear how you practice, and what you think about my ideas on this blog. Let me hear from you!