Actually, by nature, I’m a very tidy person – but my practice is positively messy – or at least part of it is!

I’m a great fan of practice – I really enjoy it.  And one of the reasons I think, is because it is messy.  Or at least the first 30 – 40 minutes of it is, when I practice technique.

Most things in life operate on a continuum (when you think about it).  Most of us are rarely extreme in our thinking or behaviour.  Many of my teaching concepts work on a continuum:

So, I’d like to introduce you to a new continuum:


When we go through our warm-ups and technical work, we can (and should) be very methodical in certain areas – as a clarinettist I always begin with some long notes – but what happens next?  A tidy (and very enterprising) 20-minute technical practice session might look something like this:


Long notes 2 mins
Legato small leaps 2 mins
Legato larger leaps 2 mins
Trills (strong fingers) 2 mins
Trills (weak fingers) 2 mins
Tremolos (2 or more fingers) 2 mins
Articulation (single notes) 2 mins
Articulation (continuous) 2 mins
Articulation (developing speed) 2 mins
Scales 2 mins


There’s no question that this kind of technical work is very comprehensive and (on paper) thorough but it could also be rather dull and rigid, restrictive and unimaginative, encourage clock watching and box-ticking and might not, in fact, deliver the appropriate results. It’s a bit more like a chore to completed.  Dutiful but not necessarily joyful.  It might be fine for any of us, on certain days and under certain conditions (not much time available, a performance approaching, the phases of the moon…and so on…) but in general I enjoy my practice to be more messy.  I like to go with the flow.


Thinking maybe of the piece I’m working on…

…I do some long notes, maybe some trills on those notes and maybe the scales and arpeggios on those notes… then maybe an interval (a 4th) catches my attention and I do a sequence of 4ths, chromatically, across the whole range of the instrument…  one needs some particular thought and work in terms of matching sound (maybe it crosses the top break), I try it at all dynamic levels and tonal intensities (and those appearing in the piece in question)… I experiment with a scale in 4ths on that note… work on some tremolandos based on some of those 4ths…  a high note catches my attention so I work at the control, the tone quality, the tonal colour then work at slurring that note to its namesake 3 octaves lower considering oral cavity shape, breath control and embouchure… then some articulation of those same notes at varying speeds…

…and so on….  I can keep this kind of practice going for as long as you like. 

It’s like a journey. It’s engaging, fun, relaxed, unrestrictive, draws on the imagination, thoughtful and is musical.  It goes with the flow and you never quite know where the flow might take you! You just have to trust your intuition. It covered a lot of connected areas in a logical and sequential way (very much in the spirit of Simultaneous Learning).  Think about the concept as related to your instrument or voice.


So… as a new thought for the new term and school year why not introduce your pupils to the concept of messy practice (and of course tidy practice!)

Demonstrate for a minute or two how it might work.  Show how many areas of technique might grow out of a single thought in a very organic, satisfying and helpful way. It may well catch their imagination and open a very significant door into a new, engaging and very enjoyable and motivational way to approach their practice.