Liven Up Your Long Tone Practice

When I was a kid in 6th grade and decided to play trumpet, I agreed to practice 30 minutes a day, 5 or 6 days a week. My mom enforced this, and on the days I really didn’t want to do it, I’d sit up in my room and play one note for that 30 minutes. Sometimes two notes. I thought I was rebelling, and annoying my family with this drone (I probably was). But the thing is, long tones are super-important for wind players. Long tones allow us to hyper-focus on the quality of sound, and since there are no note changes or any other duties, we can also pay more attention to other details like air movement, posture, and other important details we often ignore.

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

Shubha Mudgal playing hte tanpura
Shubha Mudgal plays the tanpura

Ingrid Jensen turned me on to a way to make long tones even more useful and enjoyable: Playing along with a drone. Indian music has a looooong tradition of playing with drones. Playing with a drone (a long, sustained tone) allows you to focus intently on how well you blend in and match that other pitch, a skill also known as “playing in tune.” It seems such a simple thing but so few people can do it well.

Playing with a drone will help you immensely with playing in tune. And not only playing in tune when you’re playing the same note, but playing in tune with any other note against the drone. There are many small adjustments that have to be made to play in tune: the major third usually has to be slightly lower in order to merge beautifully with the fundamental tone. Idiosyncracies of your instrument (like the trumpet’s low D and C#) often need to be micro-tuned “on the fly.” Playing against a drone will help you learn where your instrument’s tendencies are so that when you sit down with others to play, you automatically play in tune. I noticed a difference with my own ability to play in tune immediately (and I’ve been playing for 30 years).

The very best tool for drones is the iTabla Pro app for iOS systems. iTabla pro has drones on the Tanpura (in any key), but adds many, many tabla rhythms, or taals. If you only want the drones, I’d suggest the iTanpura app, which is less expensive. All future updates are free. Check the comments for more information about the developer of this great app, from Prasad Upasani.

You can set the Tanpura in the app to any pitch (the tabla match it) and can change those pitches by cents (there are 100 cents in a half step). This is wonderful as it allows me to tune the device to my didgeridoos, none of which are close to standard tuning. It’s a fantastic program and has given my practice a real shot in the arm. I’m incredibly grateful to Ingrid for sharing that information. You can hear the interview in the link below. Anyway, here are a couple demonstration videos of the software. First is the iTanpura (with just the drones and you can get it for free) and then a demonstration of the iTabla pro:

Have fun, and good luck with your long tone practice.

iTanpura

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

iTabla Pro

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