Practice Priorities

How you can develop an effective practice routine and get the most benefit from your practice time

Designing an effectual practice schedule involves answering these three questions:

  1. How much time do you have to practice and what time of day is the best time for you to practice?
  2. What are your musical goals and priorities?
  3. What activities will most efficiently help you achieve your goals?


I find the best time for me to practice is first thing in the morning, usually around 6:00 AM, before breakfast, before coffee, immediately after prayer time. The phone doesn’t ring, there are no distractions, and I am more focused. Your optimum practice time will be determined by your metabolism & your schedule.

The amount of time you devote to practice is not as essential as the degree to which you can focus and use your time efficiently. I find that improvement comes in a 2-hour block of concentrated focus.

Goals and Priorities

Below is my current list of goals. You can edit the list to suit your priorities.

  • First & foremost: developing a beautiful tone
  • Intonation
  • Endurance
  • Tonguing
  • Speed (technique)
  • Ear training
  • Improvisation
  • Sight reading
  • Repertoire

The Means – How to achieve your goals

A. For Tone, Intonation, Endurance

For improving tone, enhancing intonation, and building endurance, I have never found a technique to equal long tones. It is said that Sonny Rollins once spent 8 hours playing 1 single note! That’s a little much for me. However, in a typical 2-hour session, my first 40 minutes are spent on long tones. I set 2 tuners on the music stand, and – just for fun – I set a little metronome to 60 (so I can count the duration of my long tone in seconds).

On the clarinet, I usually begin on the throat tone Bb (a tonal problem area for me) playing both standard fingerings. From there, I work down chromatically, playing both alternate fingerings on F#, Eb, and Bb. For the upper 2 registers, it is helpful to ascend in parallel octaves. Another technique (for variety) is to start at the bottom of the horn and move up in fourths. This gives you 5 sets of 9 notes each.

On the saxophone, I usually start in the middle of the horn, work down to the bottom, play the harmonics, and then work through the top octave to high D, a 12th above the staff. On alternate days, I play to a Band In A Box accompaniment to work the altissimo range, trusting my ears to critique intonation.

On the flute, I begin on third-line-B and work down to low B, attempting to “borrow” the rich full tone of the middle register to enhance the low end. This same technique of “borrowing” the warmth & roundness of the mid-range also applies to long tones in the top octave. (See Trevor Wye, book one, page 7 for details).

B. For Tonguing and speed

Mastering tonguing involves 3 challenges:

The speed and precision of the tongue – As in all things “practice slow, improve fast.” Start with a slow metronome and play eighths, triplets, swing eighths, sixteenths on the same note. Gradually increase metronome speed, 1 click at a time.

Finger-tongue coordination – You can use a scale, chromatics, or any series of notes for this part. I have a neat little riff i like to use.

The sound of the tongue – For years, I have taught that a place ¼” from the tip of the tongue should strike a spot on the reed ¼” from the tip of the reed. However, some of my teachers advocate tip of tongue to tip of reed. My ear is the jury on this one, and the jury is still out. Try various tongue positions and listen to the results. Do not alter the breath supply or the embouchure, just the tongue.

C. For Ear Training and Improvisation

We will discuss these areas in future articles. In the meantime, check out my 2 books (each includes a CD) “New Ears Resolution” for ear training and “Keys to Music” for improvisatory content & style.

D. For Sight Reading

Because of my visual conditions (congenital nystagmus and ocular albinism), reading has always been a huge dilemma. Through the wonderful teaching of Signe Crawford and the use of a Walters 4x telescope, I am now beginning to master this challenge, although it is a game of “catch up.”

Two Ways to Practice Sightreading

When you first get a difficult chart, start with the “variable-speed toe tap.” The toe is down on the downbeat, up on the upbeat, and in “hesitation mode” when you are not sure what to play. If you master this technique, you can sight read a difficult piece with zero mistakes, thus programming your brain for success.

When performance day draws closer, use the “fixed-tempo” method. Start with a slow metronome and stick to that tempo. If you miss a note, skip it and move on. The conductor won’t wait for you in performance. The goal here is continuity, rhythm, momentum.


Looping is the most powerful practice technique I have ever known. You can use it with the “variable-speed toe tap” method or the “fixed-tempo” method. You can loop 2 notes or 8 bars.

First, identify the problem area and focus on it. Think of it as filling in a pot hole for a smoother drive. Once again, “practice slow, improve fast.” Gradually speed up the tempo, as you master the lick. Then, try leading into the hard part. Then, lead out of the hard part. Finally, put the phrase back in context.

The Most Important Practice Technique

The best piece of advice I can give us all is to “practice being present.”

If my practice is focused on some future gig, recital or adjudication, my concentration is torn. If I can pinpoint my focus to this present moment – to my breath stream, to my feet flat on the floor, to my posture, to a relaxed embouchure, to relaxed shoulders, elbows, and wrists, to light, small finger movements, to the vibration of the bell, to the sound of the horn, to this present moment – then the music comes to life.

Whatever you practice, that is what you bring to your audience at gig time. If you offer the audience an intense focus on the present moment, then you give them permission to leave all of their cares behind and dive into the deep clear pool of music which transforms the spirit.

One thought on “Practice Priorities

  1. Thank you Craig for the guidance which I have never here to fore seen. I have been playing swing as a new tenor player [previous experience on clarinet and alto sax] in Swing Fever, a band rooted in the Belfair middle school, for a couple of years now and with regard to improvising have felt like a baby which is considered to be in the most creative period of life. I have had a blank piece of paper. I knew however that one does not give a speech without working it out before the delivery. Where to find some licks to build on has been my theme. I believe you are showing me the way.
    By age I am no longer on the way up but not quite on the expressway out. I know that I will never be in the “top ten” but am happy to now be in the running. Thanks again, Carl


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