This weekend I visited a friend in Austin, Texas. She's in the percussion studio at the University of Texas, and in our discussion of all things musical, the subject of learning new pieces came up. We agreed that one of the hardest things is finishing a piece off: It's so easy to get halfway or two-thirds of the way through a piece and let that last page or two lag for a period of days or even weeks. She recalled one night when she decided to lock herself in the practice room until she managed to learn more notes, and she ended up memorizing seven pages! Her professor commented, "Yeah, that's what happens when you actually manage your practice time."
Learning how to practice effectively is one of the most difficult skills a musician has to acquire. I've read many articles on good practice room technique, and I think I can boil them all down to just a few key elements: 1. Have a plan. Most of us have a practice plan that goes something like this: Walk into room. Shut door. Put thick binder of music to learn on stand. Warm up by playing a scale or two and a favorite exercise. Noodle; walk outside practice room; have conversation with friend; glance at watch and say, "Oh yeah, I better get back to practicing"; play first 10 measures of opener; get a drink of water -- you get the idea. Most of us don't make effective use of our practice time. Unorganized time is time that is likely to be spent ineffectively, so set up a structure to your practice time. Your drum corps likely uses a set warmup routine, so adopt it -- even if you are, for example, a music major and you've already warmed up that day. Most of us aren't fully in "go mode" when we begin our practice time, so playing warmups help us focus in and bring the mind to bear on the task at hand. Playing a set progression of warmups and exercises just enhances this benefit. Set aside time each day for working basic technique. You may want to work on each technique a bit each day, or you may choose to highlight one technique each day and really break it down. Usually, doing a bit of both works best -- this keeps all aspects of your technique fresh while improving each, one at a time. Early on, you should spend more time on technique than on the show; as the months progress, this balance should even out and reverse so that you are spending less time on technique and more on the show. However, do not fall into the trap of leaving your show untouched till the week before the next camp! It's very easy to get focused on the many, many exercises your corps will throw at you, and to forget that you also have to have the opener memorized before you go back. Take the show out every day. Break it down into logical chunks and commit to working on each chunk on a specific day. This way you'll have plenty of extra time to work with if one of the chunks turns out to be much harder than it initially appears. Aim to have the show memorized and playable/spinnable by the Monday before the next camp; this will give you a nice cushion in case something doesn't go quite as well as it should or you get a couple days behind. 2. Don't practice what you're already good at. This is the single most common practice room pitfall, and it's related to human nature: We like to do what we're good at. It makes us feel good about ourselves and our abilities, and allows us to reap once more the payoff of previous hard work. However, it doesn't make us any better at what we're trying to do. So go ahead -- if you can throw perfect fives and catch solidly every time, or nail that high C, toss a couple off, just to keep the skill fresh. But after two or three, switch to lateral tosses or pedal tones or whatever it is you don't do well. 3. Make practicing a priority from day one. I can't tell you how many times I would get to the week before camp and realized just how much I still had left to practice. I would let myself get bogged down on one particular exercise, or I'd put off my corps practicing in favor of lessons material, or I'd just plain old be busy with other things and skip a couple of days. It happens to all of us -- and unfortunately it's an extremely stressful situation. The best way to avoid the stress is to practice every single day, even if you think you don't have time I always feel better about myself at the end of a day if I've managed to practice, even if it's only half an hour: You keep your muscles fresh and the music in the active part of your brain, and you'd be surprised just how much learning your brain can do on its own, even when you're not doing massive numbers of repetitions of a skill. Schedule your practice time into your daily routine, and stick to it; and, as stated in #1, schedule what you're going to learn when, and stick to it. 4. Figure out what works best for you! Practicing, like memorizing, is no exact science; there are many approaches, and if it gets the job done, it works fine. Some people work best doing a half hour here and a half hour there; personally, I have to do an hour or two at a stretch. Some people like early morning or mid-afternoon; I prefer late at night. Some people can learn a skill and execute it perfectly that day; my brain usually has to process things overnight (hence why pre-camp cramming never worked for me). I've figured all these things out after years of trying different practice techniques and sorting through what worked best. You don't have years to experiment, but chances are you already know what works for yourself in a general sort of way. Ask others what works for them, and be open to trying different things in your practice time. Put a little thought into what you're doing -- all of us are too busy, and our time too valuable, to waste it in unproductive activity. Those people who are the best players usually are also the ones who have figured out how to practice most productively. If you can become one of those people, you'll astound even yourself at how much you're able to get done in such a short amount of time. Those people who are most often successful in making the drum corps of their dreams are the ones who come back having prepared the skills and material the staff has requested of them -- it really is that simple. Ninety nine percent of staff members out there would rather have someone lacking some skills but with a rock-solid work ethic who is really willing to work than a lazy hot shot who learned great skills in high school but hasn't spent a day in the practice room since. If you go into your second camp with all the music memorized and with noticeable improvement in your skills set, it will take you a long way towards being in a uniform stepping onto the field come June. Now quit reading and go practice! Emily Tannert is a sophomore music education/percussion performance major at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, La., and holds a journalism degree from Northwestern University. Emily aged out of the Glassmen in 2003 and was assistant tour manager for the corps in 2004 and 2005. You can contact Emily at firstname.lastname@example.org.