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Why You Should Change Up Your Practice Environment

Source: Author.

I don’t know about you, but I certainly had my favorite practice room at school. The one where the temperature is always just right, spacious and clean with great lighting, and the acoustics are perfect. Not too boom-y, not too dry. In my undergrad, I used to walk around the circular halls of one of the practice buildings looking for that rare black window of an empty practice room. When I was lucky enough to land my favorite room, I just knew it was going to be a good practice session.

It wasn’t until my second year of my undergrad that I started to push myself to give up my favorite practice room and head to the dreaded other practice building, “PB”, with the dead rooms and dry acoustics. I realized that I needed to hear if the fourth 16th note wasn’t tongued just like the preceding three notes and when my tone was just poor rather than misleadingly resonant because of the room. I figured, if I could sound good in these rooms, I would sound great nearly anywhere else.

Benefits of Changing Up Your Practice Environment

  1. You’ll be ready for any environment you must play in

If I’d always stuck with my favorite practice room, sure I’d have been comfortable and happy with what I was hearing, but the moment I had to play in a dry studio for a class or a boom-y hall for an audition, I would’ve been uncomfortable, unfocused, and unable to make proper adjustments.

Instead, by frequently practicing in all sorts of environments — too hot or cold, resonant or dry, bright or dim, spacious or cramped, intimidatingly fancy or relaxingly casual — you will train yourself to become comfortable and able to adapt to whatever space you end up in.

This can be incredibly beneficial when you are taking auditions or giving important performances. There’s already enough that is out of your control in those high-pressure situations, so control what you can. A new venue won’t be as intimidating if you already know you can play in numerous environments.

2. You’ll better retain the work you just did during the practice session

I’m always looking for ways to make my practice more efficient and effective. I was excited when the topic of the month for the Digital Clarinet Academy’s THRIVE program I was participating in was “Optimizing Music Learning”. In a class led by clarinetist and performance psychologist, Dr. Christine Carter, she discussed “desirable difficulties” and how we better retain information over a longer period when we’re faced with challenges just beyond our current capabilities to the point where we make some mistakes.

Dr. Carter explained how this works with a basketball metaphor. Imagine trying to improve your free throws. If you always stand right in front of the basket, you will always make the shot. But if the basket is now 15-feet away, you’re likely going to miss the shot. If instead you practiced your free throws from 5ft, 12ft, and 16ft, you will miss a few shots at first, but in the end, you will be more flexible and know how to shoot from any distance.

There are many ways to introduce these “desirable difficulties” into our practice, from using mixed rhythms to setting our metronome to click on the offbeat. The method I want to discuss here, though, is changing the environment in which you practice.

If you always practice in the same environment, you will only know how to play well in that environment. However, when the conditions of the room you are playing in are changed, you receive different feedback, the sound bouncing back to you is different. The distractions are different. Perhaps it’s colder than you’re used to and your fingers are more sluggish than normal or maybe your focus keeps shifting to the spotlight that is shining directly into your eyes.

If you practice performing in all sorts of environments, you are challenging yourself to listen more closely, learning how to bring your focus back to the music after an unexpected distraction, and make quick adjustments based on the feedback you are receiving.

Rather than sitting back and practicing in a familiar, comfortable, and easy way, challenge yourself to work just outside of your comfort zone. These additional challenges created by the environment will force your brain to work harder and problem-solve. When your brain has to actively work harder, it is much more likely to retain the information that was just input.

How to Change Your Practice Environment

Ideally, practice in rooms and halls of different sizes and set-ups. If you are not in school, this can be a bit challenging. If you don’t have access to different rooms and buildings, you can practice in different rooms in your home. During the covid pandemic, I did this a lot, practicing one session in my bedroom and the next in my living room. Even still, two or three rooms in your home isn’t many. The other thing you can do to change up your environment is simply rotate your music stand and set-up 90 degrees.

Standing vs. Sitting

Finally, let’s talk about practicing standing versus sitting. Should we do both? Is one better?

I, like many wind players, used to practice while sitting down almost exclusively. I would only practice standing if I had a performance coming up. String players, on the other hand, seem to favor standing. And some instrumentalists (cellists and tubists) have no choice.

It actually wasn’t until the beginning of the covid pandemic that I began regularly standing while practicing. There was no studious, musical reason at the time but merely because, with the lockdown, I was stuck indoors feeling rather sedentary and felt like I needed to use my legs more. The more I stood though, the more I started to recognize the differences in how it felt compared to playing my clarinet while sitting and the more I preferred to stand.

According to a study of orchestral musicians in Australia, standing has a few more benefits for wind players. The study showed that standing allows for greater abdominal muscle activation and chest expansion compared to sitting, giving wind players a feeling of greater lung capacity and breath control. Further, the study showed that there weren’t any significant differences between the three sitting postures tested (sitting flat, reclined, and inclined), though sitting reclined was least favored by the participating musicians. This being said, practicing sitting at different angles can help train you to be more comfortable and consistent in your air use despite whatever chair is provided to you.

Over the years, I’ve played for many teachers. Some told me they thought I sounded better when I stood, others thought I sounded better when I sat. I’ve found myself more comfortable and capable in both positions at different times, so perhaps there’s not a clear “better” in this situation. I think it’s most beneficial to practice while both standing and sitting because you will need to know how to perform both ways at a high level.

Mia holds her B.M. in Clarinet Performance from Indiana University and is currently pursuing her masters in this field. With her writing, she aims to shed light on the less conventional and less discussed aspects of being a modern musician.

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Mia Thompson

Mia Thompson

I’m a classical clarinetist working towards a life in classical music performance and education. B.M. in Clarinet Performance from Indiana University