Divide and conquer: learn tonguing and notation independently to make practice easier

Imagine that you’re working on a new piece. It has a quaver or semi-quaver run in it, and you need to learn a new fingering pattern that you’re not used to. It also involves a particular pattern of tonguing and slurring that makes it trickier.

How would you work on this? What would be the best approach to make practice easier?

Slow down!

My first tip is to slow the passage right down. If I’m working on a new piece, I’ve been known to attempt new fingerings and note patterns at less than a quarter of the suggested metronome marking. Or slower: a musician that my son follows on YouTube, a bassist called Adam Neely, once emphasised the SLOW nature of slow practice by asking his viewers to play ‘glacially slow’.

We slow right down because pretty much all of us are tempted to try to be perfect immediately. We want to be able to play our shiny new piece at the suggested tempo – except we can’t. We haven’t done the work yet. I know that playing slowly can be frustrating, but not nearly as frustrating as trying to play quickly and failing. So keep it slow. Glacially slow.

Divide and conquer

Start off by deciding whether you want to get the notes under your fingers first, or feel comfortable with the tonguing. Once you’ve decided, spend some time on one, and then on the other.

Tonguing: put the recorder down, and say the tonguing pattern out loud, in the metre of the piece, at the nice slow speed you’ve picked. In the example below, remembering to tongue the E after the semiquaver slur might be tricky. If I was working on this passage, I would say the tonguing (written in over the notes) a number of times to make sure I was completely comfortable with it. Note that I’ve also chosen a particular articulation. It’s fairly samey, but it might look different if some of the notes were marked staccato.

Notation with tonguing

Notation: again, play the notes at the glacially slow speed you’ve chosen. Don’t even worry about what your tongue is doing for the moment – just make sure you have all the right fingerings. Do it a few times at that speed. You could try it a little faster and see if you can spot any ‘micro finger flails’ *- this tells you which parts of the passage you’re not comfy with thus far. Go back to the slow speed and work on it some more.

Adding them together

When you’re confident that each skill feels comfortable, try adding them together – at the glacially slow speed. Then gradually speed it up.

How long does this process take?

It depends! Sometimes it will be just a single bar that has you foxed, and you’ll fix it in a minute or two. Sometimes it will be sections of a longer run, and you’ll find yourself mouthing tonguing patterns as you wander around the supermarket. But in reality, the speed of success doesn’t really matter; what matters is that you get the passage under your control so that you feel confident when you play. That’s all that counts.


* Hat tip to Lynne Phillips (@teachypiano on Twitter) for this wonderful phrase.

Tennis lessons: what playing tennis has taught me about learning recorder

When I decided to take my Youngster out to buy him something as a reward for a really good school report, I didn’t expect him to choose a tennis racquet. But he did.

And then I didn’t expect his enthusiasm for it to last beyond a couple of days. But it did.

So a trip to a charity shop later, we have two racquets, and have been out to our local park every day to hit a tennis ball around. Every day. For at least an hour.

I was terrible at tennis at school – couldn’t even get the ball and racquet to connect – so was a bit apprehensive about playing, especially when the Youngster demonstrated that he was able to hit the ball very effectively from the off. But the outcome of nearly two weeks of going to the park has led me to a couple of surprising discoveries.

Firstly, tennis is good fun.

Second, I have learned some really good stuff about learning skills. Learning this new skill has reminded me that the principles that I believe to be true about learning in music are true for other areas too. Here are some of the ones that jump out most strongly.

  • In the beginning, you will almost certainly stink. You will play badly. Accept it. Enjoy it. There really is fun to be had in being joyfully bad at something.
  • If you enjoy doing something, you will want to do it more. That’s why the Youngster and I have been out playing every day. We’re poor players, but we’re having fun, and that’s what counts.
  • If you do something a lot, you will get better. At first, I was pleased if I could connect the racquet and ball. Then I started to do that reliably on the forehand, but with no directionality. Then I got directionality on the forehand, but couldn’t hit a backhand. Then I started connecting the backhand, but with no control. Then I started developing the beginnings of control on my backhand. Over two weeks, I have seen improvement.
  • There will come a point where you will need to think about technique. The Youngster and I have enquired about tennis lessons. We’ve both improved a lot, but we realise that our rate of improvement will start to tail off, because we don’t really know what we are doing. We need to learn about how to hold the racquet properly, how to properly play a forehand and backhand shot, how to gain accuracy in our hitting.
  • When you gain some technical knowledge, your ability, your enjoyment, and your fun will increase. A friend of mine recently had a piano lesson with a very accomplished teacher, and came away enthused with all the new ideas and technical things she had to experiment with.

Moral of the story?

Have fun. Practise. Play around. Then get some technical help, and play some more. It’s as true for recorder as it is for tennis. If you’re at the ‘get some technical help’ stage, find a local teacher, or contact me for a lesson via Skype. Get enthused, and get back out there to play some more!


Image by Suat Eman,  freedigitalphotos.net

Equipment matters: how a stand changed my practice routines

Jen's recorder stand

This is the story of how one simple piece of kit (apparatus, if you’e not English!) completely changed my practice regimes and helped to make me a better recorder player.

For my birthday, my lovely husband commissioned a local wood turner, Jonathan Rees, to make me a recorder stand. Initially the idea was that I would be able to take it along to quartet rehearsals and have my instruments all together, instead of them lying around on the floor all higgledy.

Actually, I haven’t used it for that at all.

One day, I began to think about all the little fragments of time that can get wasted during a day – waiting for the kettle to boil, waiting for an Alexander Technique student to arrive, and so one – and wondering how I could make better use of them. And then I looked at the recorder stand.

It suddenly occurred to me that, if Dame Nellie Melba is correct, and small parcels of practice time can be just as effective (if not more effective) than lengthy periods, that I could utilise these little scraps of time for recorder practice. And the best way to do that would be if I didn’t put my instruments away, but left them on the recorder stand, ready for use.

So I tried it out. I left the recorders on the stand, and left the music stand out and ready, too. And any time I had a few minutes lying spare, I would pick a recorder, pick a few bars of music, and play.

The result of this little experiment has been extraordinary.

  • I have practiced more. I am putting in more time than I ever have before, but in small pockets spread throughout the day.
  • I have become more proficient. Quite simply, I am playing better.
  • I have enjoyed myself. Practice has become a keener pleasure than I have ever experienced before. I find myself itching to pick up an instrument and play. It has become an extension of my thought processes.

So here are my tips for improving your practice:

  • Keep the instruments out! Get yourself a really nice stand so that you’ll be happy to keep them on display.
  • Be on the alert for those spare minutes when you can play.
  • In those spare minutes, pick one or two phrases, and work on those. Or just one scale.
  • Remember to look after your instruments. They will still need checking over, and the joints greasing, at the end of the day.

Try this, and let me know how it turns out!

3 Tips for using a metronome when practicing recorder

Has anyone ever told you to use the metronome when practicing recorder? Perhaps you tried it, but found it stressful, or difficult? It’s a common thing, particularly if you’re less experienced or you’ve just never tried using one before. But using a metronome when practicing recorder really can make a difference to your playing. Here’s why.

ticking metronome on a shelf


My recorder quartet has been playing for a while, and one of the pieces in our repertoire is ‘Pina ya Phala’ by Soren Sieg. Sieg writes wonderful trios and quartets inspired by African rhythms, so they are full of syncopation and notes occurring just off the beat. We’ve played this piece for a while, and feel fairly familiar with it.

Pina ya Phala is actually a trio, and while I stay on the tenor line, the treble line is played by two quartet members, depending on who is around and available. Last night at rehearsal, Tim, who hasn’t played it so much, found it difficult to count the 15 bars before his entry. He said that Ellen and I were adding in extra quaver beats that made it hard to count.

We were a little affronted, but got out the metronome and played the movement again.

And Tim was right. Darn!

Sometimes, especially with pieces that have syncopation or irregular time signatures, it can be tempting to add in extra notes. Or maybe you speed up during the faster passages, and wallow around in the beauty of the slower melodic lines (like me!). It is at points like these that using the metronome when practicing recorder can be really handy.

  • The metronome doesn’t lie. You find out all the spots where your tempo is off;
  • It takes away the added mental process of having to keep time, so you can concentrate on playing what is in front of you. You are effectively outsourcing counting to an external device;
  • Fast passages can become easier because you are less likely to rush, and therefore have more time.

So have a go at playing through your piece with a metronome, using the following tips:

  • LEARN THE NOTES FIRST! There’s no point discouraging yourself trying to keep in time playing something you don’t know properly;
  • Pick a sensible speed. Sometimes people choose  tempo that is too fast, break down in the fast sections, and then beat themselves up for not being able to keep up. The metronome is there to help you learn a good even tempo; it isn’t a stick!
  • Don’t beat your foot. Typically you’ll beat time with your foot at the (variable) speed you usually use, and get out of time with the metronome. That just leads to confusion. Let the gadget do the work.

Do you use a metronome when you practice? How does it help you? And if you don’t give it a go, and let me know if it helps!


Photograph of metronome by Jennifer Mackerras

Little and Often – How to Practice

So you’ve decided to learn the recorder. Congratulations! You’ve chosen a wonderful instrument. 🙂 Or maybe you’ve been playing for a long time. Congratulations to you, too!

Within the very first few lessons, your teacher (or your tutor book, if you haven’t got a real live person to teach you yet) will have told you about the importance of practice. And they’re right – it is important to work at home on what you’ve covered during your lesson. But how? And how much?

It is really tempting to think that you should be doing masses and masses of practice. We hear stories about famous musicians who practice for 10 or even 12 hours every day. And no matter how experienced we are or how long we’ve been playing, it is really tempting to beat ourselves up for not practicing enough.

But in my other life as a student of singing, I read a wonderful article by Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba that put my mind at rest and completely took the pressure off. She wrote:

Your practice should be divided into periods of actual singing. At first they should be very short, not more than five minutes at a time, gradually working up to twenty minutes. Three periods of twenty minutes each are enough for any student.

The point is that when you practice, you’re working on a specific element of the music for a specific reason. And if you’re just starting out, you are learning a whole new set of skills. And it makes sense to do it right.

But that takes concentration. And especially when you’re doing something completely new, you’re best off working in small units of time so that you can maintain a good level of attention.

And if you’re an experienced player, Dame Nellie has an extra instruction for you. Only physically play for short periods, but…

the time of study, apart from actual singing, should extend over several hours daily.

Melba wants you to spend time on the music, studying both the recorder line and any accompaning parts.

So, here are the Melba rules for practice:

  • Physical practice should be done little and often
  • Spend time, and plenty of it, studying the music.

How will this help you practice?