Bench Presses + Practice Design


Tiffany here. I have a life update and also a hopefully very helpful, but slightly long, piece about practice design. So maybe grab a beverage or something, and let’s do this! 


I am in a transitional moment! My husband and I moved to San Francisco last summer, but I continued in my role as the clarinet professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA throughout this academic year. I loved getting another year with my students, although the traveling was a bit nuts and I also started another full time job at Cal Performances, the performing arts presenter at Berkeley, in January. 


Needless to say - January to April were a whirlwind.


My last official day teaching at VCU was April 29 . The next day, I flew from Richmond to see my family for a few days and then came back to San Francisco. 


Once I landed I felt simultaneous relief to not have so many balls in the air and a bit of an identity crisis. 


I’ve been working a long time to have that clarinet professor title - but it was time for change and my husband had a really wonderful opportunity in SF. Plus, on top of it all, the end of a school year always brings with it feelings of “what now?!”, at least for me! 


The best thing I knew to do was focus on giving myself some much needed self care for a little bit.


I worked with a trainer in Richmond and had been missing that focused activity so much – so I found a new gym and  trainer a few blocks from our apartment. It’s wonderful and I’m so grateful for my new coach and the resources to get some help feeling like myself again. 


However, what’s really struck me about starting with this coach, though, is the programming. He’s the most methodical coach I’ve had, and it has made me think so much about practice design. 


One of the first things we’ve looked at are my bench presses. Yes, I need to get better at them. 


So what does my coach do? Spells out that we need to: 

  1. Increase my shoulder mobility
  2. Gain chest strength 
  3. Work on overall power 


He clearly stated that in order to get better at a bench press, we aren’t just going to do a bunch of bench presses. Because it’s not the most efficient way to get better. 


Then, we put those 3 skills into a timeline. What’s my weakest skill out of those that needs the most attention? What other skills/activity do I need to continue while working on this skill? And then, what’s our 3 month goal,  1-month goal,  weekly goal, and what are we focused on in this session? 


All I could think about when we were organizing the plan is that this is SUCH AN EFFECTIVE MODEL for practice design! I’ve naturally gravitated towards this thinking, but, I definitely found new clarity when I was trying to relate it to a specific fitness plan. 


There’s extensive research in fitness, kinesthetics, the body, weightlifting, sports, nutrition just to name a few. Yet, musicians are just not the best at looking to other disciplines for answers. 


But, we’re going to change that today. Let’s equate this all to practice. 


We all know that practice alone does not guarantee improvement just as time in the gym doesn’t equal getting stronger. You’ve probably heard that concept around the internets. 


But, if practice doesn’t guarantee improvement, what does? 


Is it exercises? “If I do this articulation exercise, I’ll get better at articulation.” 


That could definitely lead to some improvement. But… we’re not really at the core of it yet. Because this is similar to the bench press right? Only doing bench presses to get better at bench presses is inefficient or worse, ineffective. 


What skills are required to effectively execute the exercise? 

This feels like we’re getting closer - in order to articulate well, what are the actual skills that I need?  

Let’s use the clarinet as an example. Here are 3 possible skills that are particularly relevant to articulation: 

  • Embouchure stability 
  • Air stability 
  • Tongue control 

 OKAY WOAH. NOW I’m getting somewhere that determines what I really need to do to improve the articulation exercise. 


What’s the plan?  

Now that you've broken down the exercise into specific skills you need to work on, you must design a plan to divide your practice to work on those things specifically. You may be saying, yeah, duh, I determined I need to work on X skill so obviously I need to place it into my practice. But this is another place I see students fall short, generally speaking! They may know consciously or subconsciously, for example, that their embouchure stability is what is keeping them from having great articulation, yet they aren't working on that primary skill thoughtfully and purposefully in their practice.


And, this is tangentially related to all of this: at the end of the day, to become the most advanced at anything, you must be a master of foundational basics. 


But, that’s an email for another day. 


Let’s talk about a specific plan based on a timeline. 

Since most of us are in or rapidly approaching summer, let’s use it as a timeline. 3 months: June-Aug.  

  • If you have 3 months, then make a goal or 2 that is measurable (if at all possible) for the end of those 3 months. 
  • Then divide the 3 months into subgroups - maybe 1 month chunks.
  • Then divide that into subgroups - weeks. 
  • And then lastly, individual practice sessions. 


It seems crazy, but, if I have 3 skills that I need to work on - embouchure stability, air stability and tongue control - I could work on each for a month. 


That takes discipline and patience. And you’re probably saying, I can NOT just work on one thing for a month! 


But guess what folks? We say this with love in our hearts - but the majority of people don’t have a long term practice plan that involves specific skills (repertoire is much more common)! So better to stay the course for three months and commit to improving some very specific skills than to spend 3 months practicing random etudes and exercises without a purpose or a goal. 

The last part of this plan in analysis. You must then ask, after a certain amount of targeted practice has happened, where do I need to adjust? How do I get effective feedback?


We talk about it all the time, but one of the most effective ways is recording yourself.

But, there are also in some cases measurable ways to see if things are improving: 

  • Speed
  • Consistency 
  • Conceptual understanding 
  • Ability to execute something technically
  • Physical feeling/ease of execution
  • And so many more 


We’ve got a download for you today - Getting Started with Practice Design - where you can start to sketch out a practice design of your own! We hope it’s helpful. Download it here! It gives you an outline to apply this concept of practice design in your own life: 

  1. What exercise/repertoire do I need to improve? [For now, pick 1!]
  2. What specific skills are needed to improve them? 
  3. What measurable goals can I set to determine if I have improved? 
  4. How can I design a timeline that addresses those skills specifically and intentionally in my practice?
  5. How can I analyze if it worked?


The general lesson here is that we must find the discipline and clarity to be intentional. If we can do that, boy is anything possible. 

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