My daughter Lili is 15 (going on 27). She’s a runner (think: feather with jet engine) and a passionate baker of gourmet cupcakes, cookies, and other sumptuous sundries (see her blog, Gilded Lily Bakery [update: for some unknown reason she recently deactivated this blog – too much attention??!] for photos and descriptions). She has a lock on a very bad idea: gorgeous and scrumptious confections that are good for you (sort of: they are mostly dairy-, gluten-, and sugar-free and taste nevertheless like something you have to mention at Confession). But this post is not about my battle not to eat 15 of her cookies in one sitting. It’s about recipes and horn playing.

I heard about a book: Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking by Michael Ruhlman (see also the review of the book in the NYT) and ordered it for Lili, thinking she might be interested in the subject. She was, but I got to reading it and gleaned some ideas as well that might work for working on musical instruments. Ruhlman cuts through all the mystery and complexity of cooking and baking to reveal the basic “truths” about the best combinations of ingredients. If you want to bake bread, simply have a ratio of 5 parts flour to 3 parts water (plus salt and yeast). You can add other ingredients to spice it up, but the basic ratio remains. Pie dough is 3 parts flour to 2 parts fat to 1 part water. Cookie dough is 3 parts flour to 2 parts fat to 1 part sugar. Sausage is 3 parts meat to 1 part fat. And so on – it’s a fascinating read.

It got me to thinking, as all good books do. What might a recipe for practicing the horn look like?

I came up with the following. Ratios may change, of course, depending on the skill and experience of the player, upcoming challenges, time available, and personal needs and preferences. But I think this recipe is a good place to start:

1 part Warm-Up

1 part Technical Review (stuff you can already do very well)

2 parts Technical Development – General (stuff you can’t do that well yet: overtone series, scales, arpeggios, patterns)

3 parts Technical Development – Specific (problem spots in etudes, solos, excerpts)

1 part Performance (playing through pieces, no rehearsing or working out problems. Includes sight-reading, playing through learned repertoire, improvisation, duets, aural games, playing tunes by ear, transposition, etc.)

I thought I would try refining the ratios by changing them to percent:

15% Warm-up

10% Technical review

25% Technical Development – General

35% Technical Development – Specific

15% Performance

You could also switch the first two around: 10% warm up, 15% Technical Review.

Thus: using the ratios (the above ones or ones that you decide suit you), you can take whatever amount of time is available to you on any given day and come up with the number of minutes you should spend on each type of practice. It’s easy to just do one or two types only, but like eating, you need a balanced diet of the right stuff to stay healthy in the long run.

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