Updated: Dec 2, 2019
There are LOTS of excuses readily available to us when we don't want to (or feel like) practicing our instrument. One of the easiest to justify is when we don't have access to our instrument. Maybe it's too early or late, and you'll upset the neighbors. Maybe your family is heading out of town. Or perhaps you're sick - no one wants to practice when you're feeling crummy and stuck on the couch. Maybe you're just having a very busy day, and don't have time to properly practice at home.
Regardless of the reason, we don't have to give up on the idea of practicing - even when life happens, and we can't practice with our instrument! Here are 5 ways that you can practice in the car, during a break, at a relative's house, on a sick day, or on vacation....basically any time you can't play your instrument!
1. Listen to recordings
Listening to others is a vital part of learning an instrument. I always encourage my flute students to listen to some of the great flute players in between practice sessions! Listening can help us internalize what good tone sounds like, and expose us to things like phrasing, interpretation choices, etc. It gives us an idea of what is possible, and we have a chance to decide how we want to play and sound.
If you're working on a specific piece, listen to recordings of others performing your piece. If you're working from an etude or lesson book, then start by finding some professionals and listen to their style of playing. What do you like? What don't you like? Pick a couple that you like best, and find more of their performances to listen to.
2. Sing Rhythms
This may sound like we're headed back to basic music class, but singing rhythms never goes out of style! When we have difficult passages, it can be incredibly helpful to take one element (actually playing the notes) out of the equation, and studying just the rhythms first. Set your metronome for a comfortable speed and sing the passage in time, focusing on correct rhythms and breathing in appropriate places. If you're uncomfortable singing, staying on one pitch (or speaking) the rhythms is completely fine. Slowly work your way up to performance tempo before adding your instrument back in.
3. Double/triple tonguing practice
This is one of my favorites! There is always room for improvement on double and triple tonguing (for wind instruments), and practicing couldn't be easier! Breathe and speak "Ta-ka-ta-ka" on your way to class, in the car, or on a break at work. Start slowly, and gradually increase your speed throughout the day. Focus on keeping both syllables even and light. Then move on to triple tonguing.
4. Research composer / piece
When I was a vocal major in college, I learned to research my pieces. This is something that is often overlooked in instrumental music, or only done in small doses, but I really think vocalists are onto something here! I learned to study the composer, and the piece I was performing. I wrote out diction syllables and direct English translations, and learned about the operas that my arias were from, as well as how they fit into the story. All of this background brings a quality of story-telling to vocal performances that is really incredible.
I encourage my students to do the same with each piece they perform. Who wrote this? What period and style is it? What does that mean for how we should play it? What is the melody? Which part is most important in this section? The more you know about your piece, the more connection you'll feel to it, and you'll be more confident in your decisions and interpretation.
5. Plan - note breaths, bowings, alt fingerings, etc.
Similar to #4, taking time to plan and make notes on your piece, away from your instrument, can be extremely helpful. Where are you going to breathe during this passage? What is your bowing in that section? This is a tricky fingering bit - do you need to use an alternate fingering to make it easier? It's one of the cardinal rules for musicians to always have a pencil on hand....use this time to make use of it and remind future you of the decisions you make today!
What other ways do you practice away from your instrument? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!