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Sept. 21, 2011
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Practice (still) makes perfect

. ­­­– Those of us who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s and played a musical instrument remember teachers harping on the importance of practice. We played until our lips numbed or our fingers got lost trying to remember scales.
     Some things never change.
     Despite a National Public Radio “Performance Today” report in which some professional musicians said they avoid scales and routine practices, Slippery Rock University music majors continue to wet their woodwinds and brass mouthpieces daily. Stop by Swope Music Hall on a weekday afternoon and all of the practice cells in the basement are sure to be occupied by students practicing all kinds of instruments and vocalists belting out all kinds of tunes.
    And that’s just on campus. When they leave Swope, music students often head to other practice venues.  Some students said they practice two to three hours a day, keeping a journal for tempo markings, weekly goals and practice progress reports.  Their diligence testifies to the music department’s belief that practice is the only way for students to improve their musical skills and develop a consistency in performance.
For music majors, we recommend two hours per day of individual practice. Of course, more time equals more success,” said Brian Meixner, assistant professor of music. He added that students should break the two hours into at least two sessions to maintain “physical health and mental freshness.”
     “We recommend a strong fundamental routine, consisting of work on breathing, tone production, lip flexibility, articulation (tonguing), technical facility and range building,” Meixner said.  “Scales are incredibly important. They are the ‘building blocks’ of music.  Students who can play all of their scales well, in multiple octaves, have developed consistent tone production throughout the range of the instrument, expansion of their playing range, strong technical facility, adequate finger/tongue coordination and other fundamental components.”
    Beyond the fundamentals, Meixner said he emphasizes solo playing and work with etudes and exercises ranging from extreme technical etudes to melodic/lyrical work.
       “Regular practice is vital for the young musician, as it is the only way to effectively improve overall skills on the instrument, but also to develop consistency in performance,” he said. “Music performance is likely the most competitive market any college student can enter after graduation.  Without extreme dedication to the art, the young performer will have very little chance to win a professional audition or be accepted to a fine graduate program for further training.”    
        Meixner said musicianship is learned in the ensemble setting ­– both large ensemble and chamber – but primarily through private study on their instrument/voice and individual practice.  “Without a strong foundation of musicianship on the primary instrument, the education and therapy ‘chops’ will suffer,” he said.
     Ashley Taylor, a music therapy major and flutist from West Mifflin, said she practices her instrument two hours every day. “Overall this semester I am striving for at least 18 hours in a week, if not more,” she said. “I did not start out this way. My first semester as a freshman I only practiced one hour a day. Now I cannot imagine only practicing for one hour a day, and I wonder how I ever got anything done in that single hour.”
     Taylor said she is an organized person and random practicing would not work for her.” She keeps a chart with her goals for the week and leaves a note to herself in a journal regarding tempo, so she knows where to pick up work on a piece of music the next day.
       “The majority of time, I practice in the practice rooms at Swope Music Hall,” Taylor said. “When I am lucky, I get to practice in the music therapy classrooms, which have no desks, meaning they have a lot of open space and floor lamps for calmer lighting. I also enjoy playing in the music history classroom on the top floor of Swope because there are windows there and it’s the second floor so I can see out onto campus.”
   A perfectionist, Taylor said, “you cannot improve if you do not practice. For me, I don’t want to bother doing anything unless I am going to try to improve the way I’ve done it before.”
    Still, Taylor said a good musician should stop practicing at times and let it rip by playing  beloved solos, pop music, or improvisation.
     “Music should not be all about competition and success,” she said. “Getting first chair should not be the sole purpose of practicing. The number one purpose of practicing should be that you can convey to your audience the expression of the piece and what it means to you to the best of your ability. Practicing is important so that you can give the gift of music to other people.”
      Sarah Mientus, a music education major from Sarver who sings in six campus ensembles, said she practices a minimum of one hour a day – whenever and wherever she can find a quiet moment.
     “As a senior, it is easier for me to practice when I know underclassmen have classes in Swope,” she said. “I practice in what few practice rooms we have, classrooms and stairwells. I have practiced in the car and in the bathroom. That’s one of the greatest things about having the voice as an instrument, it’s very transportable.”
      Mientus said it is possible to practice too much, for reasons of health and sanity. “I know what multiple full days of singing does to your voice and your body,” she said. “Singing is exhausting. It’s an anaerobic exercise. It takes a lot of your energy and will power to practice and even more to practice when you’re exhausted to start.”
       Some music majors live a double life. Karter Schachner, a music major from Saxonburg who plays guitar and sings, spends half his time practicing for his Indie rock band “These Three Words” and his other time pursuing a classical training regiment of Italian arias and German art songs.
     Schachner said he takes vocal training with Colleen Gray, associate professor of music. The professor has made a huge difference in his understanding of vocal work and practice routines.
      “I started my training with Dr. Gray with some very bad singing habits, having sung in a band without training for three years,” Schachner said. “I was lazy with it at first and made little progress. But eventually I realized I was not one of those people who could just sing and naturally sound really good. So about half way through my first semester of freshman year, I started practicing at least an hour a day in the practice rooms of Swope. I worked on improving my resonance, controlling my breath and freeing my breathing mechanism. The more I practiced the better I felt about my singing.”
      Stephanie Cicero, a music education major and percussionist from Butler, said she practices three hours or more every day. “During weekends, I practice at home,” she said. “Since I am a percussionist, every instrument is not always available exactly when needed, so I tend to practice first thing in the morning at Swope when there are not too many people in the building. Practicing before class allows me to stay focused and also is usually a really nice way to start the day.”
     Cicero said she maps goals in her head every time she enters a practice room. Depending upon the piece of music, she may rehearse one section, memorize another or try a complete run-through of the piece. A drummer is not just a drummer. Cicero said she practices snare drum, mallet percussion, timpani and drum set.
     “As a future music educator, it is very important that I practice for numerous reasons,” she said. “I can only push my students to the limit I have pushed myself. There is so much to learn about music that can be taught through playing a piece, not just reading about it in a textbook. Practicing is also important because I want to be the best musician I can be.”
     Lauren Rieger, a music educator major from St. Charles, Mo., who plays the flute, said her practice strategy begins with tone exercises. Then she reviews her etudes and solo piece.
    “I practice everyday for at least an hour; sometimes I'll practice more if I'm having a good day,” she said.  “I practice in Swope in one practice room that I believe has the best acoustics.  It's important to practice because your fingers need to get used to playing.  If you don't practice for a while, then you are more likely to fall back in your ability instead of pushing forward.  I think it is possible to practice too much because your fingers can get very tired.  It can be a more efficient practice session if you practice for a little, take a five minute break, and then continue practicing for a while.  If you practice too much you can strain your muscles and hurt your hands.”
       Kevin Adamik, a music major and vocalist from Tarentum, said he begins his practices by sitting down with the music and giving it a good review. If the song is in another language, he listens to the song on a CD or YouTube to work on word pronunciation.
      “Then I go to a practice room and play a piece on the piano and break it up in to sections and start singing the sections on a vowel, either ‘a’ or ‘e,’” he said. “I then go back and sing the words on pitches. I always work on the translations if it is in a different language. I also work on memorization when learning the song.”
      Adamik said he practices two hours a day. “I practice in between classes, but I practice best at night when I am done with classes. I practice in Swope, either in the practice rooms or a classroom. Practicing helps with technique; you can try different things with your songs and try different things with your voice and see if something works better or not. Practicing is very key to being a good musician and performer.”
      Stacey Steele, SRU assistant professor of music who teaches flute, said practicing correctly is the only way to improve on an instrument. “Much time can be wasted by not being focused during a practice session,” she said.
    Without regular practices, you might become a good musician if you play as a hobby or for entertainment or relaxation. “But if your goal is to become more proficient in general or in preparation for a performance there are no short cuts,” she said. “It takes diligent and focused practice. What the audience hopefully sees on stage from an accomplished musician comes from many hours of repetitive work on the part of the performer.”
     Steele, who tutors students, said she encourages much questioning from students during lessons so that they understand what is being asked of them. In addition, each student takes notes during their lessons, as does Steele. She requires students to keep practice journals every day and take notes during practices. Before their next lesson with Steele, they must email her a summary of their recent practice notes.
      “Each lesson is evaluated by me to keep track of weekly goals being met or not,” Steele said. “This kind of routine, which they have grown used to, helps to ensure that they understand what I am asking for. For the most part, they follow my practice advice in order to progress.”
     Jennifer Nyce, a music major focusing on vocal performance from Schwenksville, said she spends 30 minutes doing warm-up vocal and breathing exercises to loosen up. Then she runs through or fine-tunes a repertoire piece she is working on. In between songs, she does more vocal exercises or stretches to keep her voice and body loose.
      “I try to practice two hours a day every day, not including the one day a week when I have my lesson with Dr. Gray, but sometimes it’s not possible to spend a full two hours every day,” she said. “I practice in the practice rooms in the Swope music building. I practice between classes, whenever I have free time, and whenever I can find an open room. It’s important to constantly be improving your technique so you can do it right without even having to think about it and so your muscles can learn to remember what to do.”
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