How to Practice Etudes and Solos

By Jeffrey Agrell

1. In your first acquaintance with the piece, play through it and isolate the problem areas. These small chunks can be considered a series of microetudes, so to speak. They may be as brief measure or less, even two notes. Master them one at a time. Don’t play the whole piece until the microetudes are all perfected. You will need to have and use a pencil: the first time through (and later, if you need to), make small marks around all the ‘sticky bits’ – spots that need work. This may be only two notes; it shouldn’t be more than a measure or so. The smaller the chunks, the easier they are solved.

2. The first problem to solve is always rhythm. Work out and become completely familiar with the rhythms of each chunk (without the horn at first).

3. To help almost every kind of difficulty, call on the Tempo Police: use a metronome to enforce slow tempos, starting slow enough that you can tap or play the rhythms and/or notes without hesitation. Amass great quantities of perfect repetitions. Then move the tempo up one notch and repeat. Gradually and effortlessly you will advance the metronome toward the final tempo goal. Intersperse mental practice (finger along as you think through it) with instrument practice so that you also give your chops some rest along the way. Speed will occur naturally and easily as the continued perfect repetitions reinforce the same neural pathway.

4. What is printed is the final form of the what you should play. What you play when you are working on it may be very different. Where to start? The answer is to change anything you need to in order to make the chunk something that you can play easily and consistently accurately.
This could mean:
•Slow down! (see above). A slow tempo is a magnifying glass that enables you to see and concentrate the small details of the selection. Don’t practice ‘in a blur’.
•Choose fewer notes to work on
•Transpose down (take it down an octave, or a fifth, for example).
•Reduce the size of a leap. If the leap is an octave, change it to a major third. When you can do this consistently, change it to a fourth. Then a fifth, and so on.
•Remember that playing a passage accurately is the beginning, not the end. Play many repetitions of that chunk perfectly before moving on.
In sum: if something is not working, change something! Don’t practice mistakes over and over. Find a way to do it right – and practice it that way. Make incremental changes toward your goal and repeat.

5. As each small chunk is mastered, practice more and more chunks together – make ever bigger chunks of mastered material until the chunk = the entire piece.

6. Beware of your biggest enemy: impatience. Take the time to do it right the first time. Then add on many accurate repetitions. It takes some time to work out a solo or an etude this way, but you will have a solid product that you can count on in the end.

In a nutshell:
Whatever the difficulty of the piece, always begin practice from a place that is easy and comfortable. Advance toward the goal in small, easily accomplished steps.