Two Music Practice Styles: Assembly Line vs. Kanban

The All-State music for Kentucky has been announced (and I posted my yearly All-State audition guide here), and that means students are (hopefully) beginning to look at it.

While neither of these is easy, this year’s All-State – especially the Müller – will reward a special kind of practice – “pulling” or kanban practice.

Assembly-Line (Push) Practice

Many students think of a new piece of music as an item on an assembly line. Their job, when practicing, is to keep the music moving forward at all costs.

I call this “push” practice since students keep pushing through, even when things go poorly. If they do eventually stop in the middle of an etude or solo, they either pick up where they left off and keep going or go all the way back to the beginning and try to “push” a bit farther through.

A short aside: it is true that when you’re performing things must keep going – you can’t stop in the middle of a concert and go back 10 measures because you lost count. However, this is a difference between practice and performing that is important to teach younger players.

Because students keep pushing through even when they are missing notes or rhythms, this kind of practice takes a lot longer to show results (and many times mistakes are repeated so many times that they become a habit).

Looking at the first few measures of the Müller, for example:

This etude is a study on the G major scale. While that is a relatively easy scale, since it’s not a common “band key” (F, Bb, Eb, etc.), many students don’t have much experience with that scale.

If a student simply starts at the beginning of the etude and keeps pushing forward, it’s very likely that they may miss something (the F# or B-natural, for example) in measure 1, and then continue to miss the same thing for the 19 measures.

Once they play it for a teacher or director, this mistake will be caught, but by then they could have dozens or hundreds of repetitions of the “wrong” way. And since it often takes twice as long to “overwrite” a bad habit, they may not have enough time to entirely correct that mistake.

Kanban (Pulling) Practice

A more effective way to practice this opening would be kanban (or “pulling”) practice. It would look something like this:

First, look at the music and notice the note pattern (ascending steps), which fits with the key signature (one sharp, G major) to make the entire first 2/3rds of the etude a simple scale.

Looking at the music will often give you an idea of what to expect when you play it correctly. Without an expectation of what a piece sounds like, there’s no way for you to know if you’re correct or not.

Next, play through just the first two measures. Since you know it’s a major scale (and you practice major scales), you’ll know what it should sound like.

If you play it correctly, move on to measures 3 and 4, looking through them first. In looking through them, you’ll notice that they are the same as measures 1 and 2, but a whole step higher. Again, this will give you an idea of what they should sound like. If reality matches your expectation, move on to the next two measures.

Without an expectation of what a piece sounds like, there’s no way for you to know if you’re correct or not.

The basic concept of this practice technique is that instead of “pushing” through the music, you do a small section, and “pull” more onto your plate when that section is at a certain level.

In the beginning, this level will be low – just the right notes and rhythms, at a slow tempo. As you start to improve, however, you can increase the tempo and add more details (articulation, dynamics, etc.).

I like to call this kanban practice since kanban is a method of production based on the rate of demand rather than the rate of supply. Wikipedia has a very interesting article on kanban if you’re a productivity nerd, but the general idea is:

  1. You have a collection of measures/phrases that need to be learned
  2. At any given time, you’re only working on a small subset of this collection (usually the recommended maximum is 3).
  3. Once one measure/phrase reaches its goal (whatever that is) it moves on to the next “step” in the process,.
  4. You can add a new measure/phrase to the subset in step 2.

One important point is that the step 3 “goal” does not need to be perfection. In the case of the Müller shown above, you could consider measures 1 & 2 to move on to step 4 when they reach a moderate speed (quarter = 60 or so). Once the first 12 measures reach this milestone, then you can start them all over again with a faster “goal” tempo.

In this practice approach, you can avoid the common pitfall where the first few measures are really good, and then the quality drops off quickly, as you reach measures that you have practiced less.

More Practice Resources

If you’re looking for more thoughts on starting, maintaining, and improving your practice routine, I’ve got them!

You can check out this blog entry with some thoughts (and lots of links) about getting into a good practice groove, and you can find all my blog entries about practice here.

Additionally, I offer horn lessons both online and in-person. If you’re looking for some additional help on the All-State etudes, or just want some general advice to improve your practice, you can contact me about lessons here.