When it’s time to hit the woodshed and do some serious practicing, there are a handful of no-brainer items that everyone needs–instrument, music, and music stand. Adding a few extra tools into the mix can make for much more productive and enjoyable practice sessions, however.
This list starts off with some obvious tools, but the ones further down the list may spark some ideas for creative practicing:
1. Metronome – This is critical–if possible, get one with a tempo tap function and subsivision playback like the Dr. Beat models that Boss makes. While it’s not necessary to spend 100% of your practice time with a metronome, I find that it’s on for at least 50% of my typical practice session.
2. Tuner – A tuner that also emits drone pitches on all twelve tones is a must for me. As a string player, I find that practicing along with a drone set to the fifth scale degree of the key I’m working in really helps to solidify my pitch center.
3. Legal pad or notebook – I’m a fan of writing down an outline of what I’m trying to accomplish in a given practice session. Putting a practice plan down on paper makes you more likely to stuck to your plan and get all the goals for the session accomplished, and having a practice journal that you can look back on really helps to show areas in your playing that you’ve been neglecting. If you ever wonder why a particular piece or passage didn’t go so well in a performance, a written practice record can come in very handy for troubleshooting the cause.
4. Audio recording device – I have recorded my practice sessions for years–it’s the most effective way I’ve found to diagnose problems and get an accurate assessment of where my playing needs work. It can be somewhat demoralizing to record yourself too much, but if you can get over the stark reality of hearing yourself on tape, you’ll find that you can really act as your own teacher and solve most problems on your own.
5. Video recording device – Video recording is audio recording on steroids in terms of garnering valuable feedback. The visual feedback that video provides can reveal the causes of technical problems that audio cannot. It’s a much bigger pain to set up a camera than to just press record on an audio device, but it’s definitely worth it!
6. Finale or Sibelius – Though using Finale or Sibelius as a practice tool is not quite common practice yet, I’m a big fan of it. I use these programs as practice aids, entering repertoire into the computer and playing along with it. Playing along with your part and trying to sync your rhythm and pitch with the computer is incredibly valuable, but don’t just stop there! Download a MIDI version of a piece you’re working on from classicalmusicarchive.org or another such site. You can then, at any tempo you choose, play along with the entire orchestra or a particular section. Feel like working with just the strings? How about basses and bassoons? No problem–this is a great way to fully experience the orchestration and how your part fits into the overall context.
7. iPod – Mass storage music devices are a godsend to musicians. Being able to carry your entire music library in an easily searchable and accessible form is a huge thing. Creative use of playlists takes things to the next level. Make a playlist with different versions of the same piece for research purposes, put all your most inspiring recordings on a playlist and listen to it before an audition for inspiration, or–best of all–make a playlist of the music you’re doing on your next recital or audition. That way you can listen to it, practice along with it, or even put it on random shuffle and play things in whatever order they happen to come up. It’s great for audition preparation–getting used to playing excerpts in every concievable order is very helpful in building audition chops of steel.
8. Audio editing software – Use a program like Audacity or GarageBand to make excerpts out of complete recordings for the above exercise. Programs like Amadeus or The Amazing Slow Downer can adjust recordings of a piece to match the exact speed you want to play them. Create multiple versions that increase in speed for practicing purposes. This is a tool that you’ll find to be surprisingly useful.
9. Laptop – This is the ultimate modern practice accessory, combining all of the aforementioned tools (and then some!) into one package. While I wouldn’t expect a younger student to be running around with a MacBook Pro for practicing, the serious-minded older (college age) student should consider incorporating a laptop into his or her practice arsenal. With a laptop, integrating listening, audio and video recording, Finale play-along,