Virtual Practicing-desert island practice tips

Regular reader Roman recently asked a good question that deserves a response.

"David -
You've offered up so much great practice advice here on your blog. Do you have any tips for practicing away from the horn? I've heard of people closing their eyes and fingering an imaginary horn, and I've tried that but it really hasn't seemed to be very effective for me. Any other ideas? Thanks, Roman."

There are several ways to practice without your horn. Here are a few techniques that I have used over the years:

  • Bilateral Finger Coordination Exercises- these exercises help to get both hemispheres of your brain working together to control digital dexterity. For the sake of explaining the exercises we'll call the thumb on your right hand R1, right index finger R2 and so on. Your right pinkie of course is R5, left pinkie is L5 and your left thumb is L1. The goal when doing these is to get both hands acting exactly together. Most people have one hand that reacts faster than the other and of course this is not good for saxophone technique. These exercises would of course be helpful any instrument that uses both hands. Start each exercise slow and concentrate on getting your hands working together. Slowly speed up to a blistering speed. Remember to keep your hands and fingers totally relaxed at all times. Set both hands comfortably on a flat surface in front of you with your fingers spread out slightly. Tap each finger lightly on the flat surface.
Bilateral Symmetrical Digital Dexterity Exercises (both hands at the same time):

1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2- repeat

1-2-1-3-2-1-4-3-2-1-5-4-3-2-1-4-3-2-1-3-2-1-2 - repeat

1-2-1-3-1-4-1-5-1-4-1-3-1-2- repeat

This last exercise isn't bilaterally symmetrical.

At the same time as you do-

Do the right hand-

  • Perfect pitch exercise- carry a small pitch pipe or tuning fork with you throughout the day. Each day pick a pitch and try to sing it at various times during the day. Use the pitch pipe to check your accuracy. Sing the pitch loud enough to feel the way it makes your throat and chest vibrate. Every note physically feels unique. Over time you will be surprised at how much better you can recognize pitches. It doesn't take long to develop a really perfect A, E or G. From there you can slowly add other notes that are solid inside you. I call this 'Relatively Perfect Pitch' because you start out with only a couple of note that you can recognize.
  • Sing along to solos! Duh. This seems so obvious but not many players do this regularly. Load your iPodod or Diskman with great tunes and try to sing along to every note in the solos. Singing is great for ear training. Don't worry that your tone sounds like crap, just try to sing in tune and in time. This will internalize and solidify your sense of pitch, and time for that matter.
  • Try to read though solo transcriptions without your horn. Take the Omnibook with you on the subway. You don't even need to sing out loud, just try to hear the lines in your imagination. This is great for sight reading and ear training (or pitch visualization).

  • Of course the next step here is scatting. You can do this to music or unacompanied. If you can clearly hear and sing something then you will be less likely to let your fingers do the walking. Play what you really hear, don't play what you can't hear or sing.


Anonymous said...

I often thought that what makes a good singer translates well to an instrumentalist. And I agonized that I couldn't sing very well so then maybe I'd never be a great sax player. I'm not sure that is true, but it feels intuitive to me.

But singing to songs, trying to at first find and keep the time and then working on variations upon a theme does give one confidence to branch out with instrumental improvs.

But for me, it now comes down to counting and sight-reading. In high school I often held down the first alto sax chair, but I didn't know I couldn't read until I got to college. So the next two years will be spent concentrating on time and sight-reading. To some that seems easy, to me it is a huge challenge. Don't get me wrong, I can learn almost anything. But to get gigs, you have to be able to read. And iteration appears to be the best method to get there.

David Carlos Valdez said...

Sight reading can be practiced WITHOUT your instrument. My suggestion about singing was meant to
develop the ear, not the voice. Don't worry about sounding really bad, just try for the pitches. The more you're able to sight sing the better you will be able to practice sight-reading without your horn.

I often practice new tunes for gigs without ever touching my horn.

If your ear isn't highly developed then you'll be pretty useless as a musician, no matter how well you can read.

Unknown said...

Great tips David! Thanks again.


Anonymous said...

Bob Mover discussed this at length during a lesson with him several months ago.

Bob relates a technique that Stan Getz taught him. Stan used to always be travelling on the road so he didn't really have any time to practice, other than to find a reed.

On the bus, plane or whatever, Stan would verbally recite chord structures in time. Pick your favorite tune, count out a tempo and verbally recite the structure of the tune in time. Also, it is good to recite 2-5's in all twelve kieys this way. This builds your sense of time as well as your knowledge of tunes.

Aaron Johnson

Me Me said...

Great suggestions, David--and great tip from Aaron Johnson.

I picked up an Aebersold book at the last IAJE called "How to Learn Tunes". Frankly, I wished there was more meat to it, but the basic gist is, memorize repertoire via categorization. In other words, make lists of tunes you know (or want to learn) grouped by characteristics such as key, meter, tempo, form, type of melody and harmony, rhythm/groove. This is something you can do while traveling or away from your instrument.

Another good technique is to work with a metronome and practice the rhythms of a piece.

My question lately is, what sort of mnemonic aids do other musicians use? I generally write lyrics over and over by hand to learn them (I'm a singer). But since I don't accompany myself on stage, I find that when I learn a tune on the piano, after the initial process of reading it and learning it, I forget the names of many of the chord changes. In other words, I have the muscle memory in my fingers but intellectually I'm not retaining the names of the chord changes. Any suggestions on improving this, or on learning tunes in general?