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3. Practice


Brassica Oleracea
Staff member
If you wanna sound like $Famous_Player, you need to PRACTICE. A lot. You might have a number of minutes in mind. That's not enough.

OK, let me qualify that statement, a bit: it is a good thing to have a set time to practice and make sure you ALWAYS practice at that time. It develops a good routine. Also note that while your lesson is probably no more than an hour, the things your instructor might tell you will give you many, many hours to practice.

Now, I wanted to be a professional musician at a young age and I knew that a) I didn't have gobs of talent and b) I had to be better than 230 of the 250 or so saxophone players that were competing to get a spot in the saxophone program at the university I attended. I practiced, in college, approximately 6 hours a day, every day, except weekends -- and on weekends, I was playing about 6 hours a day.

If you're not planning on being a professional -- you just like playing or will be in a school/community/church/whatever ensemble -- an hour a day might be enough commitment for exercises and maybe another 1/2 hour to practice whatever music for your ensemble.

The point is that the amount of time can vary, but you're still going to have to practice.

Again, 5% of your sound comes from the horn, another 5% from your horn's setup and the remaining 90% is from you. You can have a $23,000 Heckel 41i bassoon and you're still not going to sound like William Waterhouse unless you practice. A lot.

Trombonist Dave Steinmeyer tells that he is often asked how he got to be as good as he is and what advice he offers those who would like to get there.

Dave said that ever since he began playing as a boy, he spent every spare minute practicing. Even if he had to go in a closet, close the door, and point the slide towards the floor.

As you say, it isn't some planned number of hours a day. It's every spare minute of every day. It's when you don't absolutely have to be doing something else. And you do it because you can't not do it. To the extent that you have no other life.

Is it worth it? Only the student can answer that question.
I've heard 10,000 hours as well but can't remember where.
I had that discussion just the other day with a sax player who read it in a book.

10,000 hours is only five normal-shift work-years. (40 hours x 50 weeks x 5 years .) Consider how many hours medical and legal students put in before they are allowed to practice. In most trades, master level comes after much more than five years. You have to apprentice, then be a journeyman, etc.

I think 10,000 hours is a low estimate.


Brassica Oleracea
Staff member
Isn't there a rule of thumb that almost anyone can become a professional if they put in 10,000 hours of smart practice, study, etc into the endeavor?
Emphasis mine.

You can learn a bad behavior extremely well by practicing something incorrectly. I've got several stories that can highlight that fact. I think I'll use my Mom's husband, who's a violinist. I'll call him "George", just in case my Mom ever visits here.

George practiced an average of 6 hours a day. After 15 years, he's cut down to about 1.5 to 3 hours a day. However, his tone has not improved (seriously; I used to rent his downstairs apartment and I know his tone) and his facility has only improved a bit, as evidenced by the fact that he's generally last chair in whatever ensemble he plays in.

I attribute the tone problems to the fact that he doesn't have that good of an ear and doesn't practice with a tuner (and never sings/hums); both are deadly, especially on an instrument that doesn't have a "fixed" fingering. I attribute the rhythmic problems to the fact that he doesn't practice with a metronome. He may also have technique problems, but I don't teach violin, so I couldn't tell you.

This is another reason to have a good teacher: he'll show you the right way to do something and tell you to practice it and you'll reinforce a good habit, rather than have to unlearn a bad one.


Clarinet CE/Moderator
Staff member
I don't think "counting the hours" really matters.

A professional sax teacher (or clarinet, etc) will help a student grow in all facets of the instrument. This is key as it could save someone tons of hours learning and unlearning on their own.

But each practice must direct itself on resolving some technique, expressionism, improving at something, not just playing the same as before.

And as the hours of practicing increases, looking back one can actually realize that one has improved. That is key .. constant improvement.


Brassica Oleracea
Staff member
We also had some good discussion about HOW and WHAT to practice in http://www.woodwindforum.com/forum/showthread.php?t=1831. Here's some highlights:

* Whatever your instructor told you to.

After you've found out how to create a correct embochure (how to hold the mouthpiece, reed or headjoint properly in/by your lips to make an appropriate noise) and how to correctly finger your instrument (and this isn't just "I know how to finger a D!" it's "This is how to correctly place my fingers on the keys, how to properly place them and how high to lift them"), you're ready for a routine:

* Long tones. Always a good warm-up thing, particularly if you're doing it with a tuner (if you're a beginner, you should ALWAYS do this with a tuner). You should also try different dynamics (i.e. volume levels). Stay in tune.
* Octave leaps. Again, with a tuner. An octave leap would be A to A, etc. As you get better on your horn, you can get into the extreme altissimo registers. Expand that two and 1/2 octave fingered range on the sax to four octaves!
* Thirds. Again, with a tuner. A "third" is a note three "steps" away from another note: C-E, for instance (you count from C to E and that's three notes: C, D, E).
* Scales. Both long tones and short. Mix 'em up. Keep it even. A tuner and metronome are your friends. Your lesson book should have all the scales listed.
* Do some harmonics. Again, a tuner is your friend. [The thread this was taken from says that harmonics can be done on flute, so other woodwinds may be capable: I can do them on sax, but not a clarinet and I don't play any other woodwinds. This is a bit of an advanced skill, though, so it might be awhile before you want to start this. Talk to your instructor.]
* Go on to the piece(s) you're needing to practice. The idea is not to play everything as fast as possible (unless you're playing "As Fast as Possible"), but to play it at a consistent speed and work up to the performance speed. If everything is cake but a small section, work on that section until you can build up the speed. (The cake is a lie.)
* If I don't have anything to practice, I can always pull out Sigurd Rascher's 24 Intermezzi ('course, I'm talking about sax), but I'm sure there's a equivalent for every woodwind. It's just to limber you up with something that's soul-crushingly difficult (hey, Rascher used key signatures with double-sharps and double-flats) so everything else seems easy.
* I generally would pull out one of the Bach Cello Suites (I played baritone sax, which is approximately the same range as a cello) and run through one or more of those, because they're the Bach version of the Intermezzi for cello.

FWIW, sit-ups and/or a walk [which I mentioned in the thread this was taken from] will help you with your playing in several ways: build up lung capacity, build stamina and increase your life expectancy, so physical activity other than playing isn't a bad idea, too.


Note (punny!) on the long tones and scales: the reason why you practice with a tuner is to teach your body how to play the note in tune and teach your ear/brain how the note is supposed to sound -- this again points out the need to practice things the right way. If you can consistently play in tune with long tones (which is just holding a note for a long time; not any particular amount of beats), you can go shorter and in time: whole notes to half notes to quarter notes to eighths to sixteenths. If it's all in tune, you're a winner.

Note on the metronome: you want to play in rhythm. A metronome forces you to play in rhythm. If you can't play a piece at the proper speed, slow it down a bit. Hey, it's just practice.
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Staff member
Re: Long Tones

I like to practice long tones with a metronome and a tuner. I set the metronome to 60 bpm. Attack each note as softly as possible and crescendo to as loud as possible by beat 8. Then decrescendo back to as soft as possible by beat 16. You can go longer or shorter depending on your air capacity. I find that paying attention to the airflow and tongue position adjustments you need to make to stay in tune while adjusting your volume is a great help. This can really be an adventure when playing at the upper and lower extremes of the horn.

You also learn the overall tendencies of your horn / mouthpiece / reed setup. For instance, I know that my G#, particularly in the lower register tends to be flat, and the louder I play it the flatter it gets. The first natural tendency is to tighten up your embouchure, which is not how to fix the problem. If you jump to D or E, which have a tendency to be sharp, and forget to loosen up, now you are really sharp. By learning how to adjust with airflow and / or tongue position during the long tone exercises, when it comes time to actually play music, your muscle / brain memory will process and correct the pitch almost automatically.

I just wish I had learned this 40 years ago when I started playing, instead of after 30 years of bad habits.

Carl H.

Distinguished Member
Distinguished Member
My preferred method of doing long tone intonation exercises involves the used of a drone tone. Intonation is not a static number, but a moving voice which is dependent on harmonic usage. Playing to a tuner gets you an average that is close enough for most everything, but tuning intervals to a fixed pitch helps connect the embouchure to the ears instead of the eyes to an external measuring device.

In college I spent many long hours in the organ practice rooms doing VEEEERRRRRRYYYYYYY slow long tone scales against a tonic drone. Having a full set of pedals at your disposal is the easiest way to do it, but I think there are other means of generating a pitch which aren't as intrusive as buying an organ.

I use the tuner to get my chosen tuning note to where the horn plays best for me and then put it away. For a beginner it might be a good way to work on intonation, but for someone playing to a higher level, let your ears tell you where your pitch is.