To get a better idea of what you should be practicing, I encourage all musicians to identify five strengths and five weaknesses.
For example, if I list “tone” as a weakness, it helps me realize that my tone is something I need to work on. Then I have to determine HOW to work on it (long tones).
Sometimes you can have the same listing in both the strength and weakness categories. For example, you might be working on scales or arpeggios, and you might have a good understanding of them in major tonalities, but you might not be so good at the minor tonalities.
Also realize that a strength can be as simple as, “I love to practice” or “I love the sound of the saxophone.” But search deeper than that. This list is for your benefit, not just an exercise to fill up 10 spaces.
The Practice Block
Now, how does identifying your strengths and weaknesses help with your practice? If you block off one hour of time, you can essentially work on all five weaknesses for about 10 minutes each. I strongly encourage players to practice much more than one hour per day, but once you block off that hour, you can double it or triple it for as much time as you have to practice. If you can practice three hours, then you work on each weakness for 30 minutes.
Daily, thoughtful, slow practice is essential to becoming a better player. Don’t confuse activity with progress. If I am just messing around on the horn and not listening to what I am doing, it really does me no good to be playing. You have to listen all the time to your sound, articulation, dynamics, rhythm, intonation and harmonic approach.
Your strengths and weaknesses will change from time to time—and they should. The goal of working on your weaknesses column is to eventually move them into your strengths column. Another thing you will find is that by working on your weaknesses, your strengths will keep getting stronger. Happy practicing!