Last time, I talked about the middle 2 areas of a practice session, Technical Exercises and Music. Technical Exercises are like the Meat and Potatoes part because this is the area that helps us make the most progress. This is also the part of practicing that everyone hates. Why? It reveals our weaknesses and it’s a constant reminder that we have stuff to work on. The Music part is the one everyone loves because it’s fun; it’s like Dessert.

This week, we explore the last 2 areas: Sight-reading and Improvisation, and Warming Down.  I like to look at sight-reading and improvisation as different types of dessert; they are challenging but fun at the same time.


With sight-reading, I like to think that there’s no pressure; you’re looking at it for the first time, so it’s okay to make mistakes. Many students become afraid of sight-reading, especially at solo festivals where it is a part of their score. The way to take away the fear is to practice sight-reading for a few minutes every day.

What material do I practice for sight-reading?

Pick pieces or 8 – 16 measure phrases that are at or just above your level. For beginners, go one page further in your method book. If the exercises or songs look too complex, or the page introduces too many new concepts, then go to a previous page where you may not have worked on every example. The best situation is when you have a method book that comes with a CD or mp3 tracks. That gives you the correct way to play the example.

Method books for intermediate and advanced level students are more involved; there should be plenty of material (etudes, duets, solos) all over the book to explore. I think about the Rubank Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced Series for all instruments, or the Arban Method for trumpet or DeVille’s Universal Method for Saxophone as examples of books with many sections of great music to explore.

A number of beginner method books (Essential Elements 2000) have CD’s and interactive software to enhance your practicing. SmartMusic is a GREAT program that every student should purchase. It is interactive software that contains many state solos, method books and even some of the Jamey Aebersold Jazz books (to be discussed in the Improvisation section). (It comes free for a certain time period with the Essential Elements 2000 books.)  When you purchase the microphone that clips to your instrument, it follows your playing. The software will tell you where you made mistakes (it marks the spots where the mistakes occurred) so you can improve your reading.

You can learn about SmartMusic here:


(Ask your teacher in school if they have a discount code. Some districts have this for students. Currently, the annual student subscription is $44.)

When I was younger, I used to spend every Saturday just sight-reading. It was fun exploring different music with NO pressure. I can’t even begin to tell you how much this improved my playing and reading. I didn’;t just sight-read classical pieces; I also used some fun jazz sight-reading books, like Rhythms Complete by Bugs Bower.

You can find Rhythms Complete here for treble clef:

and here for bass clef:


No matter what instrument you play, you CAN work on improvisation!  There are some great jazz bassoonists, violinists, oboists, etc. Classical performers (in the streets and concert halls) used to improvise all the time before music was printed. Improvisation is an important skill for everyone; just as speaking your OWN words are important, playing what YOU feel and think are equally important.

So, how do you practice improvisation? This truly is a whole series of articles in and of itself. For beginners who have learned how to produce good sound on at least three notes, I have my students create their own rhythms (classical and jazz) on the notes they know. Once students learn a full major scale, they can make up rhythms on each note of the scale going up and then down. Beginners and intermediate players can learn simple songs (by ear would be best), then change around the rhythm and/or add a few notes in between the melody.

Intermediate and advanced performers can learn melodies and chords of simple songs. When you know the notes that make up the chords, you have more choices of notes to use for improvisation.

A great resource is the Jamey Aebersold series of Jazz Improvisation books. There’s over 135 of them and still counting! You can start with Volume 1 and read about How to Improvise, but another great volume to start with after you know a few major scales is Volume 24; Major and Minor. This book has background tracks for every Major and Minor scale, and is a great way to learn minor scales and to hear chord backgrounds for your scales.

You can find all of the Jamey Aebersold books here:

Jamey Aebersold's Jazz Books

or Aebersold’s Volume 1 here:

Aebersold’s Volume 24 here:

Warming Down (an area often over-looked):

For brass players, this is crucial! Many young players use a lot of mouthpiece pressure and find that on the following day are unable to play because their lips are “puffy.” Playing simple warm-down exercises like soft long tones for beginners or lip bending exercises for advanced players help regain the flexibility in the player’s lips and facial muscles. Play these exercises for 3-5 minutes depending upon the length of time practiced. If possible, spend a couple of minutes warming down after a rehearsal.

For wind players, it is also important to warm down. Three to five minutes of soft long tones in the lower register and concentration on proper breath support will reinforce good habits

There was a lot of information in this article – I hope you found it helpful! Next time, I want to talk about how to manage your time to fit in these areas of practicing.

Action Steps:

  1. Read my other two blogs on Making Music Fun if you haven’t already: Part 1:  Making Practice Fun – Part 1, Part 2: Making Practice Fun – Part 2 – The Meat, Potatoes and Dessert
  2. Click the links above to learn more about SmartMusic and the Jamey Aebersold series. Purchase the materials you need from the links above as well.
  3. Start working in some improvising into your practice.  You can use songs, scales or the notes you know.
  4. Work in a few minutes a day of classical and/or jazz sight-reading. Remember, there’s NO pressure!
  5. Let me know how you’re doing in the comments below. If you are a teacher, and have any other suggestions, please also leave a comment below…
  6. If you enjoyed this article, sign up on my website at http://DonnaSchwartzMusic.com , and get my bonus article and video on Three Steps to Learning Your Favorite Song….
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