In my last blog about general music concepts, I wrote about using short bursts of practice in your routine as a musician. This time, we go in the opposite direction and discuss building stamina.
Stamina is generally defined as, 'great physical or mental strength that allows you to continue doing something for a long time.' Musical stamina, or the ability to play well for long periods of time, is vitally important if you want to be in a band or perform on stage.
Musical stamina is both physical and mental
Musical stamina involves both physical and mental effort. You’ll need physical stamina to produce the sound from your instrument and mental stamina to keep focused on the musical material you are playing.
It brings consistency and conviction to your playing. It also makes music more enjoyable whether you are playing alone or with others. Musical stamina involves both physical and mental effort.
I am compelled to start this blog the same way I started the one about short bursts of practice- with a disclaimer! I am not suggesting that anyone should try to use the idea of musical stamina as a way to hurt their playing or their instrument.
If you are a singer, don’t try to work on stamina without some guidance from your teacher. Your instrument is your voice and it is hard to repair it! If you play an instrument that can cause some physical discomfort (e.g. - callousses from playing the guitar, embouchure fatigue on a brass instrument) please be careful not to cause yourself any pain.
And finally, make sure your instrument in the proper condition for sustained playing time. If your drums are falling apart or your saxophone needs maintenance this is not the best time to develop stamina. Make sure you and your instrument are ready to play comfortably for an extended period of time and keep your level of effort at medium strength.
The proper warm up
Musical stamina can be compared to jogging. When someone is jogging it is at a medium speed, usually over very manageable terrain, and it goes on for a long period of time when compared to sprinting and other forms of running.
Let’s apply mindset to the practice room for a moment:
First, choose an amount of time in the practice room for your musical jog. Chances are the amount of time that you can play without stopping is directly related to your skill level. Beginners should try for one minute as a first goal and advanced players might be able to do fifteen or twenty minutes.
We’ve already checked our instrument - is your voice warmed up? Is your instrument working well? Once we’ve set aside our time and we’re physically and mentally ready to play, the next step is picking something musically beneficial that we can use for our jog.
Check your stride - are you doing more harm than good?
No matter what you pick as your musical material for this jog in the practice room, make sure you can play it correctly first. Repeating mistakes over and over again in the pursuit of building stamina is a bad idea; it will cause more harm than good.
Pick musical material that is within your skill range and can be played repeatedly without mistakes (if you're not sure, ask your teacher for guidance). Keep all of your physical effort at the low to medium range - avoid loud dynamics or fast technical passages when building stamina. Plan what you will do with the musical jog before you begin and it will help you get great results and be productive.
Plan your (long) route
My first choice for musical material to use when building stamina would be scales. Scales can be played with an almost auto-pilot mentality and therefore work well for stamina development.
I routinely ask my students to play a certain scale one hundred times before their next lesson. I will time on a stopwatch how long it takes to play it once and literally multiply by one hundred to show them how long they will have to play it in minutes and seconds.
Here’s a good, productive approach to start with:
1. pick one scale, set a timer, and play that scale for five minutes straight.
2. Use a metronome and/or a tuner.
3. Decide on a tempo and rhythms to use.
4. Keep it fun and interesting! Maybe you can start with the scale ascending and descending followed by intervals, then diatonic triads, and finally diatonic sevenths.
Playing a phrase over and over is another option. If you have a phrase that is very difficult, make the commitment to play it correctly for several minutes (this is another good place to use a timer). A dash of perfection early on goes a long way towards building not only stamina but also precision and good habits in your playing.
When you're first building up your stamina for long runs, it's OK to take a run/walk approach (run a mile, walk for 1/4 mile, run another mile). Similarly, when practicing, the first minute can be spent at a slow tempo and then gradually speed up as the minutes go by. If one phrase isn’t enough to fill the time, pick two or three phrases.
Complete the entire run
Playing songs and performance pieces can serve serve as the mission and the material in the practice room. The mission of musical stamina is to build up our endurance to get through entire songs and pieces. Therefore, they are ideal material for building stamina.
When I am working on memorizing a song, I might play it for ten minutes without stopping. I’ve done that many times with jazz music. If I stumble playing the melody of a jazz tune at a gig I will use this approach on my next practice session.
Classical pieces can be very long and require stamina almost by definition. If you are working on this style of music, you should have plenty of material to pick from. If the piece has several movements, pick one and play it several times. As you repeat the piece, try to focus on a different musical concept each time through.
For example, the first time through, I would focus on accuracy of notes and pitches. Next, you could add more attention to dynamics. As each repetition goes by, you can add more and more details to your playing of the song or piece.
It doesn't have to be boring
To be successful at this concept you need repetition but you also want to avoid monotony. Playing the same thing over and over has its limits and dangers. Many musicians believe that if you play something too many times it can lose that feeling of inspiration. For some players, certain songs can become almost torturous. I could name a few myself! When you work on building stamina keep the material rotating all the time. If your mind checks out you’re not doing yourself any favors by playing something endlessly.
Make developing your stamina a part of every running (practice) session
Every practice session should have several stretches where you play for a few minutes without stopping (or as long as you comfortably can). It will develop the strength and speed of your technique no matter what instrument you play. It can develop good air stream and embouchure if you play a wind instrument. It can help singers learn about their voice and how it can handle the sustained effort that performing requires. If it is done with a metronome, you can develop your sense of rhythm and groove and using a tuner will help monitor your intonation as you play or sing.
Your favorite musicians have stamina... and you can too!
As a closing thought, think about of all of your favorite musicians. Chances are, they all have musical stamina. Would you pay all that money to go see them perform for a couple of minutes? Of course not! Most concerts are around two hours, regardless of the style of music being played.
And the whole idea of an encore at a performance is that audiences believe musicians always have a little more music left to play. Every great musician can play for long stretches of time and make it interesting for their audience and themselves.
Stamina is an ability and skill that can be developed if you add it to your routine in the practice room and keep it as a goal for your musical efforts.
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