Tired of playing the same music? How about some new sheet music!

Newertunes.com is the home of music by composer Jon Jeffrey Grier. Here you can peruse compositions for a wide variety of styles, media, and degrees of challenge. Score excerpts, audio excerpts, and background information are provided for each work. Prices are low, designed to cover the expenses of making the music available. Proposals for commissions are also welcome.

Jon Jeffrey Grier holds a D.M.A. in Composition and a M.M. in Theory from the University of South Carolina, where he studied with Gordon R. Goodwin, Samuel Douglas, and Jerry Curry; a M.M. in Composition from Western Michigan University, studying with Ramon Zupko,and a B.A. from Kalamazoo College, studying composition with Lawrence Rackley Smith. From 1988 to 2019 Jon was Instructor of Music Theory, Music History, and Composer in Residence at the Greenville Fine Arts Center, a magnet school of the arts in Greenville, SC, where he was voted Teacher of the Year three times. Jon composed frequently for student and faculty performers at the FAC, usually when he should really have been grading papers.

Among Jon’s awards are the 2016 South Carolina Arts Commission Fellowship in Music Composition and the 2014 Carl Blair Award for Excellence in Arts Education from the Greenville Metropolitan Arts Council. In 2009 he was the winner of the inaugural Rapido! Composition Contest sponsored by the Atlanta Chamber Players and in 2004-05 he received a fellowship from the Surdna Foundation. He has received grants and commissions from the South Carolina Arts Commission, the Greenville County Youth Orchestra, the Michigan Music Teachers Association, the American Composers Forum, and the Alliance for Quality Education; his works have been performed by the Kandinsky Trio, the Ceruti Quartet, the Aurelia Trio, the Ritz Chamber Players, Sounds New, Conversant, and the Greenville Symphony, to name a few. Jon has also been a writer/keyboardist with various jazz ensembles in Greenville since 1984. He lives in Greenville with wife Marion and manic mongrels Roxanne and Gracie Jean.

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The Myth of ‘Practice Makes Perfect’


How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice. In a groundbreaking paper published in 1993, cognitive psychologist Anders Ericsson added a crucial tweak to that old joke. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Deliberate practice.

It’s not a minor change. The difference between ineffective and effective practice means the difference between mediocrity and mastery. If you’re not practicing deliberately — whether it’s a foreign language, a musical instrument or any other new skill — you might as well not practice at all.

I was reminded of the importance of deliberate practice by a fascinating new book, Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning. Its author is Gary Marcus, a cognitive psychologist at New York University who studies how the brain acquires language. Marcus is also a wannabe guitarist who set out on a quest to learn to play at age 38. In Guitar Zero he takes us along for the ride, exploring the relevant research from neuroscience, cognitive science and psychology along the way. One of his main themes is the importance of doing practice right.

“Hundreds of thousands of people took music lessons when they were young and remember little or nothing,” he points out, giving lie to the notion that learning an instrument is easiest when you’re a kid. The important thing is not just practice but deliberate practice, “a constant sense of self-evaluation, of focusing on one’s weaknesses, rather than simply fooling around and playing to one’s strengths. Studies show that practice aimed at remedying weaknesses is a better predictor of expertise than raw number of hours; playing for fun and repeating what you already know is not necessarily the same as efficiently reaching a new level. Most of the practice that most people do, most of the time, be it in the pursuit of learning the guitar or improving their golf game, yields almost no effect.”

So how does deliberate practice work? Anders Ericsson’s 1993 paper makes for bracing reading. He makes it clear that a dutiful daily commitment to practice is not enough. Long hours of practice are not enough. And noodling around on the piano or idly taking some swings with a golf club is definitely not enough. “Deliberate practice,” Ericsson declares sternly, “requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable.” Having given us fair warning, he reveals the secret of deliberate practice: relentlessly focusing on our weaknesses and inventing new ways to root them out. Results are carefully monitored, ideally with the help of a coach or teacher, and become grist for the next round of ruthless self-evaluation.

It sounds simple, even obvious, but it’s something most of us avoid. If we play the piano — or, like Marcus, the guitar — or we play golf or speak French, it’s because we like it. We’ve often achieved a level of competency that makes us feel good about ourselves. But what we don’t do is intentionally look for ways that we’re failing and hammer away at those flaws until they’re gone, then search for more ways we’re messing up. But almost two decades of research shows that’s exactly what distinguishes the merely good from the great.

In an article titled “It’s Not How Much; It’s How,” published in the Journal of Research in Music Education in 2009, University of Texas-Austin professor Robert Duke and his colleagues videotaped advanced piano students as they practiced a difficult passage from a Shostakovich concerto, then ranked the participants by the quality of their ultimate performance. The researchers found no relationship between excellence of performance and how many times the students had practiced the piece or how long they spent practicing. Rather, “the most notable differences between the practice sessions of the top-ranked pianists and the remaining participants,” Duke and his coauthors wrote, “are related to their handling of errors.”

The best pianists, they determined, addressed their mistakes immediately. They identified the precise location and source of each error, then rehearsed that part again and again until it was corrected. Only then would the best students proceed to the rest of the piece. “It was not the case that the top-ranked pianists made fewer errors at the beginning of their practice sessions than did the other pianists,” Duke notes. “But, when errors occurred, the top-ranked pianists seemed much better able to correct them in ways that precluded their recurrence.”

Without deliberate practice, even the most talented individuals will reach a plateau and stay there. For most of us, that’s just fine. But don’t delude yourself that you’ll see much improvement unless you’re ready to tackle your mistakes as well as your successes.

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Purchasing an Oboe – where to buy, brands, types and more questions answered

Article written by:  Tanya Johnson – owner of Reedpros.com  Please use the contact me form to get in touch with me.

There are so many things to consider before going out and purchasing an oboe: What grade are you in school? Is this instrument your step up because you are going to college? Will you be majoring in music? Is this your primary instrument of study? Should you get a new instrument or used? What brand should you buy? Should you buy a student, modified conservatory or full conservatory model? Should you buy from Ebay, Craigslist or Amazon? I hope to help you answer all these questions and more, so read on!

1. Where should I buy my next oboe? The best place is an Oboe / Double Reed Specialist shop. The people working at these shops are small business owners who are likely active professional oboists in their local community (not always, but much more likely). If the company isn’t in the state you are in, don’t worry! You can still try out the oboe (or even a few oboes). They will ship the horns to you carefully packaged and give you specific details on what to do if you choose to keep the horn or not. Whether you are purchasing a new or used oboe, as a general rule, I would NOT recommend purchasing an instrument on Ebay, Craigslist or Amazon.  Generally speaking, someone selling an oboe on Ebay or Craigslist is going to be a private owner who has one horn they no longer need and might not know very much about it. My biggest concern is that you, as the buyer, don’t know if it was looked over buy a qualified repair person and it is often a final sale. So you are purchasing as is. If you have the ability to return the instrument should you be unhappy, then that is reasonable. If you are going to buy on Craigslist, Ebay, or Amazon, just read all the fine print to see what restocking fees there might be or any other penalties. However, I would really recommend buying an oboe from a Double Reed specialty store. They are truly knowledgeable about the instruments, the different models and their specifications, and can answer your questions. I have my favorite shops and know several of the company owners personally. I would be happy to send you a few recommendations via email or phone.

2. Have a qualified instructor play the oboes you are considering and inspect them for problems. This is very important. It is crucial for a used oboe but also important for a brand new instrument. A new instrument can have defects and problems that may make that one particular instrument a poor choice. Your private oboe instructor is a great place to start. If you aren’t taking private oboe lessons with a qualified instructor, you should still have your prospective oboe checked out. Not sure if the instructor is qualified? Ask where they went to school, what they received their degree in, is oboe their primary instrument, do they currently play? It can be hard to find an instructor who is very proficient on the oboe depending on the area you live in. If you live in a rural area, you may have to drive a far distance to meet up with a qualified oboist. To search for a qualified oboist, contact the colleges and universities in your state and ask if they have an oboe instructor/professor. They may be able to play test the instrument and offer advice. If they aren’t able to offer assistance, ask them for other suggestions. You could also call your local professional symphony office and ask them for information about their oboists, then contact the oboe players directly. I have been stressing “qualified oboist” so let me explain. I have had several students over the years come to me to take lessons after having taken lessons at some retail giant music store. Upon asking my new student about their previous lessons, it turns out their private oboe teacher actually played a completely different instrument and didn’t even own an oboe! That is an example of an unqualified individual. I have also come across many “Find-A-Teacher” websites listing instructors. Many of the teachers will list guitar, piano, violin, cello, trumpet, trombone, flute, clarinet, oboe and many other instruments all taught by the same person. Now that doesn’t mean that individual can’t play those instruments, but that also doesn’t mean they are the right person to test your instrument to determine if it is one that could take you through college as an oboe major.

3. What brand and type of oboe should you buy?

Here are some brands and model selections based on level.

For beginners: approximately 0-2 maybe 3 years of playing

  • FOX Renard Protege Model 333 Oboe Plastic (beginner) Modified Conservatory System
  • FOX Renard Artist Model 330 Oboe Plastic (slight upgrade) Modified Conservatory System
  • YAMAHA YOB-441A Plastic Simplified Conservatoire (semi-automatic octave system)
  • *BUFFET Model 4052 Intermediate Oboe Standard WOOD (ask about breaking in)
  • *BULGHERONI Model FB-091 WOOD Modified Conservatory System (ask about breaking in)
  • *BULGHERONI Model FB-101 WOOD Modified Conservatory System (ask about breaking in)
  • If possible, I don’t recommend ANY Jupiter, Bundy or Selmer beginner oboes. (I have once come across a beginner Jupiter oboe that seemed to play alright. But that was one out of the many I have tried. In my 20 years of teaching experience, the Jupiter, Bundy, and Selmer beginner oboes have weak keywork and lots of adjustment problems, therefore I don’t recommend those oboes. )

For Intermediate: approximately 3-5 years of playing

  • *FOX Artist Model 335 Modified Conservatory System WOOD (ask about breaking in)
  • FOX Professional Model 300 Oboe (PLASTIC) Full conservatory system
  • *FOX Professional Model 400 but the 400 is WOOD Full conservatory system (ask about breaking in)
  • *BULGHERONI Model FB-101 WOOD Modified Conservatory System (ask about breaking in)
  • *BULGHERONI Model FB-095 and FB-105 WOOD Full conservatory system (ask about breaking in)
  • *PATRICOLA SB1 Model WOOD Modified Conservatory System (ask about breaking in)
  • *PATRICOLA PT.SC1 Model WOOD Modified Conservatory System (ask about breaking in)

For Advanced: college bound and beyond

  • *PATRICOLA PT.1 Model WOOD Full Conservatory System (ask about breaking in)
  • *LOREE all models are full conservatory. The differences will mainly be in the bore design for sound production. (ask about breaking in)
  • *FOX Professional Model 400 or 800 WOOD Full Conservatory System (ask about breaking in)
  • * YAMAHA YOB-841 Model WOOD Full Conservatory System (ask about breaking in)

This list is not comprehensive and there are oboe brands not mentioned here. That is because I have not tried many of the other brands enough to get a feel for how those instruments “tend” to be.

4. Should I buy wooden or plastic?  Plastic instruments are generally marketed toward beginners and it gets harder to find professional level instruments that aren’t wooden. Plastic will be cheaper than wood and easier to take care of. But wooden oboes usually have a warmer sound and are preferred if possible. Because wooden oboes require extra care, they usually aren’t recommended for beginners. Wooden oboes require breaking in. A brand new horn needs to be played for only 5 minutes each day for the first week, then 10 minutes a day for the following week, then 15 minutes, etc. If the oboe has remained unplayed for an extended period of time, the break in procedure has to be repeated to stave off cracks. If getting a brand new wooden oboe, don’t sell or get rid of your old plastic oboe until the break in procedure is complete! I would probably still recommend breaking in a used wooden oboe just to be on the safe side. While no one can guarantee you won’t end up with a crack in your oboe, this article can help prevent cracks from forming  https://reedpros.wordpress.com/2013/12/29/how-to-prevent-cracks-in-your-oboe/

5. Should I buy a new or used oboe?

A used oboe can be a great way to save some money on your costly investment. Find out if you are offered any warranty and what it might cover. Even used oboes may have a warranty! If the seller says it is a “final sale, no refunds or exchanges” – beware. Should there be anything wrong with the instrument, you either have to pay to hopefully repair the issue (which could be very costly) or deal with a less than ideal instrument. If purchasing a used wooden oboe, ask if there have been any cracks and what repair person did the work.

With a new instrument comes a complete warranty, all manufacturer intended accessories (like reed case, plastic instrument stand, case cover, etc) but it also comes with a new instrument price tag. Being a brand new oboe, it hasn’t cracked yet, but you will have to break it in carefully.

Hopefully this article will help you in your adventures in purchasing an oboe! Happy Practicing!

Need to buy oboe reeds, reed cases, swabs, music stands or other items for your oboe habit? Please visit www.reedpros.com

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Back to School Discounts

Don’t forget your music supplies when preparing for Back To School. Save 10% off ALL items at www.reedpros.com when you PHONE IN your order and pay via credit / debit card. Save an additional 15% off tuners and metronomes. Just mention you saw this ad when calling 818-850-0581 for savings. Offer good August 1st through August 31st, 2014.

back-to-school-reed-pros copy

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Helping Patients Through Music

Helping Patients Through Music  — video available with this link.

Beverly Casson settled back in a chair and closed her eyes. A young musician named Andrew Friedrichs, playing piano maybe 15 feet away, drifted into a gentle, jazzy version of “Silent Night.”

For a moment, Beverly could forget why she was there.

“This can be uplifting, very soothing,” she said. “I love music.”

It was a January morning, during the worst of this month’s bitter cold. While a heavy snow covered the parking lot, the waiting room at Hematology Oncology Associates in East Syracuse was crowded with cancer patients awaiting chemotherapy.

Among them was Beverly, of Baldwinsville. She sat with her husband Jim: “My rock,” she called him. They have three children and eight grandchildren, and Beverly was thinking of how one of her little grandsons, over the yuletide, turned toward her after she told him she loved him.

He replied, almost in a matter of fact way: “Grandma, I love you every day.”

Every day. Those words help keep her going.

Beverly is a survivor of breast cancer, then cancer of the thyroid, and now she is battling lymphoma. She was in a good mood on this particular morning, but she shared no illusions about the treatment — “I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t have my bad days” — and she said the waiting room, in itself, is a kind of crucible.

She’s 73. She can balance her cancer against the joy, the family accomplishments, of many years. What’s hardest, she said, is when she sees young people coming in for chemotherapy. She grieves for what they are facing, all too early.

In those moments, she is grateful for the music.

“It’s a little upbeat,” she said, “in a place that can be tough.”

Andrew, a graduate student, sometimes plays with Symphoria, a nonprofit organization of about 50 musicians from the old Syracuse Symphony Orchestra. Trombone is really Andrew’s primary instrument, but he enjoys the chance to sit with the piano. Patients, moved by a particular song, occasionally slide in next to him, on the bench, to offer a memory or two as he plays.

-d030847b4612bb0a.jpgRight, Symphoria’s Mary Sugar plays the piano for patients receiving dialysis treatment at Northeast Medical Center. In the background, at left, is Melody Hutchinson, a nurse, talking with Carole Verne, a patient from Chittenango. “I think it’s wonderful,” Verne said about the music. “It brings back a lot of memories.”Michelle Gabel | mgabel@syracuse.com

He was part of an initiative known as Healing Harmonies, established by Symphoria with the support of the Alive! Foundation. Musicians, who are paid a small stipend for their time, also perform in the St. Joseph’s Dialysis facility at Northeast Medical Center, in Fayetteville, and there are plans to expand to other medical venues.

The program was founded by Victoria Krukowski, a member of Symphoria. Two years ago today, she lost her mother,Marian Bullock, to complications related to Alzheimer’s disease. Marian loved music. As the Alzheimer’s worsened, Victoria often played clarinet for her mom.

“It helped her remember things she didn’t remember,” Victoria said. “I really believe it helped her to be more coherent.”

When Marian died, Victoria wanted to honor her mother in a way that would have lasting significance. She remembered how a friend with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra once told her about the healing ripple of music on those struggling with illness.

In that way, “Healing Harmonies” was born. It became a regular feature at the dialysis center after Victoria met Dottie Clark, 80, a retired music teacher who is there three times a week, for four hours of dialysis — a treatment that replicates the work of healthy kidneys.

Dottie speaks of her fellow patients as a family, and she told Victoria that her friends would embrace the presence of music. Dialysis is a hard and draining process. One of Dottie’s arms, until she’s finished, is always attached to a machine.

“When I clap,” she said, “I clap with one hand.”

Mary Sugar, also of Symphoria, set up nearby on a recent morning to play keyboards. Mary spent years in New York City. She has performed with many renowned musicians. She was in the orchestra for several Broadway productions. She took part in concerts and shows at Kennedy Center.

None of it, she said, means as much to her as the dialysis center, where she puts up a little sign that says she takes requests.

Mary played Always as a gesture to both Dottie and Carole Verne, a Chittenango resident whose kidneys “started to go” after heart surgery in the 1990s. Carole, 75, is also dealing with multiple myleoma. Dialysis, she said, can wear her out, and there are days when she would rather not face it.

Then she thinks about her children and grandchildren, “wonderful kids who mean so much to me,” she said.

She shows up. The music is a respite, an escape.

For the indomitable Connie Tily, 80, of Jamesville, the songs are another way of gaining strength. “I don’t like to quit,” she said. She laughs about how she “married the milkman,” referring to John Tily, a guy raised on a dairy farm and her husband of 62 years.

Like Carole, Connie said the music helps her remember “all the old times.”

And the old times created all the good reasons to be here, now.

Don Edwards, too, was thankful for each melody. He worked for decades in local television and radio, before teaching at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. He and his wife Nancy will celebrate their 60th anniversary this year — which Don described as all the motivation he needs for enduring any discomfort from his treatment.

He’ll typically read throughout dialysis, but Mary Sugar’s keyboards add a new element.

“Can you imagine the difference it makes in this environment?” asked Don, 82, looking at a roomful of weary, stoic patients.

Mary played for more than an hour, then began to pack her gear. Dottie Clark, at about the same time, was unstrapped from the machine. Her husband Bob, she said, would soon arrive to pick her up. Dialysis, for Dottie, has become an old routine, and Bob can look at her face and tell exactly how it went.

“He knows as soon as he sees me,” Dottie said, “if I’ve had my music.”

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Post-Standard. Email him atskirst@syracuse.com, write to him in care of The Post-Standard, 220 S. Warren St., Syracuse 13202, visit his blog at syracuse.com/kirst or send him a message on Facebook or Twitter.

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How To Prevent Cracks In Your Oboe

A modern oboe with a reed.

A modern oboe with a reed. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No one wants to see a crack in their beautiful wooden oboe but they are prone to them. While the steps listed below will help prevent cracks, it is not a guarantee as it is still possible for a crack to form.

1. Warm up your instrument in your hands or under your arm before you blow any air into it. My hands are always cold, so I have to warm up my instrument under my arm. I do this until the instrument feels warm to the touch. I want the keys as well as the wood to feel warm. This is the most important for the upper joint as this is where cracks typically happen on the oboe.

2. Once you have warmed up the outside of the oboe, you can now play some notes – low notes. This enables the air to travel all the way down the instrument.

3. Keep a humidifier in the case. I live in a very dry climate so I keep a humidifier in my case all year round. If you live somewhere very humid, you may be able to get away with keeping it in the case only during the winter. Having said that, when I did live in a humid area, I still kept my humidifier working during the summer months because air conditioners remove moisture from the air. My favorite humidifier for my oboe case is a Humistat. I prefer them to the Dampits because I can see how much water is still in the humidifier and I can control how much humidity is released into the case. Humistats can be purchased at www.reedpros.com


4. Swab out your oboe after playing. It is important to remove so much moisture after playing. Be sure to take any moisture out of the tone holes and octave vents if you hear any gurgling or bubbling during playing.

5. To oil or not to oil? That may indeed be the question. This topic is highly debated in the oboe world and it is a matter of personal preference and experience. Before deciding whether to oil your wooden oboe: do plenty of research by speaking with qualified repair techs, research reasons why other professional oboists oil or not oil and speak with your oboe instructor as well.

Things to avoid –

Don’t warm up your instrument by blowing hot, moist air into the top joint. Warm up the oboe under your arm or in your hands first!

Don’t leave your oboe in the car during the winter (or summer for that matter!). I treat my oboe like my baby – I wouldn’t leave my baby in a cold car or hot car for even a few minutes so I won’t do that with my oboe.

Hopefully you will be fortunate enough to never experience cracking in your oboe. Happy practicing!

You can purchase the Humistat humidifier and other supplies for oboe at www.reedpros.com

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Reeds for Christmas


Don’t wait too long to order oboe reeds in time for Christmas!

Visit us at www.reedpros.com to see all the latest goodies for the oboist in your life.

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How To Care For Your Oboe

Rosewood Patricola Full Conservatory Oboe

Rosewood Patricola Full Conservatory Oboe

Here are the key points I make sure I tell my students and their parents about keeping their instrument playing great.

General Maintenance for the Oboe:

1. Have a silk swab.

silk oboe swabI have seen many students take apart their instrument and put it away without swabbing it out after playing. Please, please, please make sure you swab it out! It only takes a few seconds and it can make all the difference from preventing sticky keys and keys which get water constantly trapped in them.

2. Don’t drink soda, eat candy or eat food without at LEAST rinsing your mouth out with water before playing. This may seem like I am asking too much but any of that stuff you just put in your mouth is in your saliva which ends up in the instrument. It is even worse for the reeds!! Food particles and sugary spit are the worst culprits for sticky and waterlogged keys. Brushing your teeth would be the best solution but it isn’t always  possible.

3. Use cork grease on the joints of the oboe. cork grease   If you don’t use cork grease, you’ll find your corks will break apart, crumble then fall off then instrument. Cork grease helps the instrument fit together easily which means less aggressive man-handling of the delicate oboe. New corks need more cork grease. You may even have to put it on every time you put the instrument together when the corks are new.

4. Don’t leave an oboe in a hot car. I won’t leave my oboe in the car if I have to go into the grocery store, post office, or some other errand I may have to run on the way home from rehearsal or teaching. If it is 80 degrees outside, it can very easily become 100 degrees inside the car. The heat isn’t a great idea for the wood (or plastic), pads, or corks for your instrument.

5. Don’t leave an oboe in a cold car. I happen to live in a hot climate, but sometimes even here the temperature can get in the 40s. My instrument goes with me everywhere if I have to get out of the car.

6. Never store your oboe in the attic. This doesn’t just apply to oboes. No instrument should ever be stored in the attic.

7. Wooden oboes require extra special care as the wood can develop cracks. If your oboe is made of wood, you should warm it up with your hands or under your arm before playing as well as follow all the other procedures listed here. If you have a brand new wooden oboe, you will need to break it in first in order to prevent cracks. I’ll do a separate post on that another time.

8. Keep the instrument in its case when not in use.

9. Be careful not to squeeze the rods along the side of the instrument when putting it together or taking it apart.

10. Take your instrument to a qualified repairman at least once a year. They will check out the adjustment, oil the rods, replace any leaky pads and replace any damaged corks.

www.reedpros.com carries swabs, soaker cups, cork grease and other maintenance items for the oboe. Please stop by for a visit! Also Like us on Facebook for specials and news www.facebook.com/reedpros

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How to Practice Effectively, Efficiently and Make It Stick


Why the Progress You Make in the Practice Room Seems to Disappear Overnight

by Dr. Noa Kageyama 

Have you ever been frustrated by the fact that you can take a difficult passage, work on it for a bit, get it sounding pretty good, but return to the practice room the next day to discover that you’re back at square 1? That nothing has really changed? And despite how good it sounded yesterday, now it sounds just as bad as it did before you worked on it?

Most of us can live with “two steps forward, one step back.” It’s the “two steps forward, two steps back” that makes us want to tear our hair out.

So what are we to do?

Are we just supposed to keep at it and learn how to be more patient? Or is there a different way to practice that can make these improvements more permanent?

Enter Christine Carter

Dr. Christine Carter is a clarinetist who teaches at the Manhattan School of Music, and did her dissertation on the contextual interference effect – a phenomenon that can help you make your daily progress in the practice room actually stick. In this post, she shares a few suggestions on how we can make the most of our practice time.

Take it away, Christine!

Making the most of your hours in the practice room:

One simple change that could drastically increase your productivity

When it comes to practicing, we often think in terms of time: How many hours are necessary to achieve optimal progress? While this is a valid concern, a more important question is how we can make each hour count. What is the most efficient way to work so that what is practiced today actually sticks tomorrow? There is nothing more frustrating than spending a day hard at work only to return the next day at the starting line. Unfortunately, our current practice model is setting us up for this daily disappointment.

Repetition, babies, and brain scans

Early on in our musical training, we are taught the importance of repetition. How often have we been told to “play each passage ten times perfectly before moving on”? The challenge with this well-intentioned advice is that it is not in line with the way our brains work. We are hardwired to pay attention to change, not repetition. This hardwiring can already be observed in preverbal infants. Show a baby the same object over and over again and they will gradually stop paying attention through a process called habituation. Change the object, and the attention returns full force. The same goes for adults. Functional magnetic resonance imaging has demonstrated that there is progressively less brain activation when stimuli are repeated. The fact is, repeated information does not receive the same amount of processing as new information. And on some level, we all know this. Constant repetition is boring and our boredom is telling us that our brains are not engaged. But instead of listening to this instinctive voice of reason, we blame ourselves for our lack of attention and yell at ourselves to “focus!” Luckily, there is an alternative.

Blocked practice schedules

In the field of sport psychology, the continuous repetition discussed above is called blocked practice. In a blocked practice schedule, all repetitions of one activity are completed before moving on to a second activity. For example, a baseball player who must hit fifteen fastballs, fifteen curve balls, and fifteen change-up pitches in practice would complete all of the fastballs before moving on to the curve balls and so on. This most resembles the way the majority of musicians practice, especially when it comes to challenging passages. We work on one excerpt for a given amount of time and then move on to the next excerpt until all tasks for the day are complete. A blocked approach seems logical.  Muscle memory requires repetition and why wouldn’t we do all of the repetitions in a row? After all, if we are working on a difficult passage, it feels a lot more comfortable 10 minutes into practice than at the beginning. It is precisely this feeling of comfort and improvement that reinforces our reliance on blocked practice. The problem with this kind of practicing, however, is that the positive results we feel in the practice room today do not lead to the best long-term learning tomorrow. Practicing in a way that optimizes performance in the practice room does not optimize learning.

Random practice schedules

What if we took the blocks of practice on particular tasks and broke them down into smaller segments on each task? In the baseball example above, the players could hit the three different types of pitches in an alternating fashion, instead of doing all of one kind in a row. Two breakdown options are a repeating order (e.g., abc abc abc…) or an arbitrary order (e.g., acb cba bca…). In either, the net result will still be 15 practice hits of each of the three types of serve, exactly the same as the net result in the blocked practice schedule. The only variable that changes is the order in which the pitches are practiced. This type of interspersed schedule is called a random practice schedule (also known as an interleaved practice schedule).

In a random practice schedule, the performer must keep restarting different tasks. Because beginnings are always the hardest part, it will not feel as comfortable as practicing the same thing over and over again. But this challenge lies at the heart of why random practice schedules are more effective. When we come back to a task after an intervening task, our brain must reconstruct the action plan for what we are about to do. And it is at this moment of reconstruction that our brains are the most active. More mental activity leads to greater long-term learning. In the blocked schedule above, the baseball players must only construct the action plan for each type of pitch once, at the beginning of each block. In the random schedule, they must construct and later reconstruct an action plan fifteen times for each pitch. Although a blocked schedule may produce superior performance during practice, study after study has shown that a random practice schedule consistently produces superior retention following practice a day or more later (i.e., the amount actually learned). This phenomenon is called the contextual interference effect.

How much better is a random practice schedule?

It turns out that the hypothetical baseball example used above is not hypothetical.  In a 1994 study by Hall, Domingues, and Cavazos, elite baseball players were assigned to either the blocked or random practice schedules discussed above. After twelve practice sessions, the baseball players in the random practice schedule hit 57% more of the pitches than when they started. The blocked group only hit 25% more of the pitches, meaning that the random practice schedule was almost twice as effective, even though the two groups hit the same number of practice pitches. Similar results have been found across a wide variety of fields. Most pertinent to our interests as musicians, my preliminary research at the Brain and Mind Institute in Canada provides empirical support for the use of a random practice schedule in music. Not only does this research suggest that a random practice schedule is more effective than a blocked schedule for practicing musical passages, participant interviews also reveal that random practice has positive effects on factors such as goal setting and focus.

How to use a random schedule in the practice room

Rather than spending long uninterrupted periods of time woodshedding each excerpt or section of a piece, pick a few passages you would like to work on and alternate between them. If you want to spend a total of 30 minutes on a particular excerpt, practice in shorter segments, continually returning to this excerpt until you have achieved your 30-minute goal. Experiment with lengths of time. If you are practicing excerpts that are very short, you may be able to switch between them at a faster pace than would be required for longer sections. You can use a small alarm clock to time specific intervals or switch after each repetition. At its most basic level, random practice might look like this:


Material to Practice

3 minutes Excerpt A
3 minutes Excerpt B
3 minutes Excerpt C
3 minutes Excerpt A
3 minutes Excerpt B
3 minutes Excerpt C

Practicing passages in different rhythmic variations is a great way of introducing contextual interference on a smaller scale. But instead of doing all rhythmic variations on a single excerpt before moving onto the next, do one variation on excerpt A, one on excerpt B and then return to excerpt A for a second variation etc. Technique can also be interspersed into the random schedule, instead of doing all of it in one long block. An example of a more complicated random practice session might look something like the following:


Material to Practice

2 minutes Long tone, scale, long tone, scale…
3 minutes Excerpt A (using first rhythmic variation)
2 minutes Third progression, arpeggio, third progression, arpeggio…
3 minutes Excerpt B (using first rhythmic variation)
2 minutes Long tone, scale, long tone, scale…
3 minutes Excerpt A (using second rhythmic variation)
2 minutes Third progression, arpeggio, third progression, arpeggio…
3 minutes Excerpt B (using second rhythmic variation)

The permutations are endless and the exact division of time is not important. What is crucial is that you are keeping your brain engaged by varying the material. More engagement means you will be less bored, more goal-oriented (you have to be if you only have 3 minutes to accomplish something), and substantially more productive. Most importantly, when you return to the practice room the next day, you can start from where you left off. This type of practice sticks.

Additional resources

Dr. Robert Bjork on the benefits of interleaving practice @ Go Cognitive (6-minute video)

About Dr. Christine Carter

christine carter clarinetDr. Christine Carter is interested in how musicians can be more effective on stage and in the practice room. She has conducted research at a number of brain imaging and music psychology labs and is currently a visiting scholar at Western University’s Brain and Mind Institute.

Christine is also an active clarinetist. Performances have taken her around the globe, including venues as diverse as Carnegie Hall, the ancient cloisters in Avignon France, the Sydney Opera House, the Heritage Theatre in rural Newfoundland, and a Baroque Palace in the South of Germany. She completed her Doctor of Musical Arts at Manhattan School of Music, where she now teaches the Woodwind Lab.

photo credit: fmgbain via photopin cc

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Oboe Reed Cases, Reed Making Kits, Reed Knives and More

Summer is coming to an end and school will be starting again before you know it. Reed Pros is happy to announce new products we have just in time for back to school. We have some lovely new oboe reed cases. You’ll find silk covered cases: Blue Dragon Silk Covered Oboe Reed Case Red Dragon Silk Covered Oboe Reed Case

We also have beautiful wooden oboe reed cases: Oboe Reed Case Stained Wood

We also have oboe reed making kits. There are kits for reed adjusting: Oboe Reed Making Kit

And our new Deluxe reed making kit featuring a Landwell Reed Knife and all the necessary items to make your very first reed, including staples and cane. This kit contains a Landwell reed knife, mandrel, cutting block, plaque, beeswax, spool of thread, three staples, three pieces of gouged, shaped and folded cane and a Reed Pros combo ruler. Deluxe Oboe Reed Making Kit

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