• Sandra Howe

How to Practise when Coping with Illness Part I

This is the perfect time of year to talk about illness and how it affects our practice. We may suffer for a week or two with a cold or flu that interrupts our practice, or we may be suffering from a more chronic condition which we struggle with daily. Either way we are going to need some clever strategies to help fit practice into our life.


It goes without saying that you should look after yourself first, if you really don’t feel like practising then allow yourself to have a break to fully recover. For those that are interested in some tips and tricks to practise while not feeling quite up to scratch – read on!

The best strategy is to practise parts rather than the whole, it’s surprising how many ways we can break a skill down into its parts: -

  1. Physical Training

  2. Ear Training

  3. Sight Reading

  4. Comprehension

This week we will look at Physical Training and Ear Training. Part 2 will cover Sight Reading and Comprehension.

Physical Training

It goes without saying that we need to keep our muscles strong and supple to be able to continue practising where we left off. This means we need to go through the basic movements we use when we normally practise. The tips below are to be used not to practise performance but to practise basic movements which keep your hands, fingertips and embouchure strong.

Silent practice is great for woodwind players. You don’t need to fully set your instrument up – the mouthpiece and neck can be left in the case. All you need is the body. You can play through scales or pieces with just finger movements. Depending on the shape of your instrument you can do this sitting up in bed.

Table practise is great for pianists. You can use any flat surface to go through scales and pieces. It is not the same as a piano, but it uses similar muscles.

Investing in a smaller portable instrument that can be used either sitting or sitting up in bed can be very handy if you regularly suffer from illness. A portable keyboard for pianists, a smaller size guitar or even ukulele can make sure you keep your fingertips tough by playing through exercises such as scales or chords and arpeggios. Woodwind instruments are usually small enough but sax players may need a smaller plastic sax like a jsax to keep their embouchure strong.

Only do as much as you are able, remember we are focusing on maintenance, not improvement.

Ear Training

Listening to music can help all musicians and you can do it anywhere. It can even help us feel better!

Listening to the pieces you are currently learning can help with many different skills. Listening can help develop our tone, intonation and expression – you can play better after just listening to a great performer.

By listening, you can also develop what I call your “aural memory”. If I told you to close your eyes and picture your front door, you would visualize it in your minds eye. We can also do this with music – can you recall a song? Can you hear it in your mind? This is your aural memory. We need to have this fully developed to perform a piece well. Listening helps strengthen your aural memory and you don’t even need to be paying attention for this to happen, although listening intently is so much more fun!

This brings me on to the best secret yet…. Imagination! Studies have suggested visualization leads to nearly as much improvement as physical practice. While you are listening, why not imagine yourself playing? Really try to visualize every movement you make.

Next week Sight reading and Comprehension!

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