Karate Chops for Woodshedding

Use Karate Chops to break up the notes and make woodshedding fun!

woodsheddingKarate masters break boards and bricks to show their mastery of a skill. Musicians can use music “karate chops” to break tricky passages into smaller pieces. This blog post will give some ideas for how to break music into smaller pieces and use moments of silence to optimize learning.

We will use this passage as an example:



These two measures of music are in a difficult key (four flats=A-flat Major) and have some tricky skips. We are going to break the running notes into smaller pieces. In the first example, we will try two notes at a time, followed by a rest. The rest can be any length. You will find that as your skill improves, the rests will be shorter in length. Play at a tempo that feels just at the edge of control but no faster than you can achieve 95% accuracy.


Once you feel confident playing the exercise in groups of two, try grouping the notes by three. Again, leave as much space between the notes as you need to regroup your fingers and eyes. You are working for accuracy and evenness of notes but don’t worry about playing the rhythm exactly as written. Try for zero mistakes.


Now groups of four:




In the above exercises, you are giving the brain a chance to process and plan ahead during the rests. There’s something magical about that moment of silence.

One variation of this exercise is to try starting a group on the second note or the third one. It also changes the brain’s perception of how the notes are ordered. You are still practicing the same fingering combinations but again the accents are changed.

Here’s the same example as above but grouping by 2s and starting on the second note of the sequence:


You can get creative with “karate chops.” What would it sound like in groups of 5? Or perhaps start the sequence on the third or fourth note. You should try each version of the karate chops two or three times and then move on to another permutation. Keep your brain entertained and keep mixing it up!


The brain encodes information redundantly. In other words, memories are stored all across the brain. We know that musicians use the entire brain because music involves physical movement, visual cues, auditory input, emotional connection, and more. My blog post Brain Imaging on Musicians references one recent study that shows how the brains of musicians “light up” in a MRI.

When a memory is stored in many places and is used frequently, it will stay in the memory longer and will have faster retrieval. (Research note: The Human Memory article online.)

When we change the groupings of notes or their order, we are strengthening the memory. Even though it seems like changing the music would be harmful to mastery, a study on athletic training found that “a varied practice schedule may facilitate the initial formation of motor schema.” (from a research project by Kerr and Booth, University of Ottawa. ”Specific and Varied Practice of Motor Skill,” Perceptual and Motor Skills, Vol. 46, No. 2, April 1978, 395-401.)

In the book How We Learn, Benedict Carey writes

“The mixing of items, skills, or concepts during practice, over the longer term, seems to help us not only see the distinctions between them but also to achieve a clearer grasp of each one individually. The hardest part is abandoning our primal faith in repetition.” (p. 164)

The silence between groups is unique to this woodshedding exercise, and it is of special importance. Adding rests gives the fingers a chance to pause and achieve greater accuracy. We know that practicing right notes (and not wrong ones) is a path to success. (Blog article Research on Effective Practice Skills.)

For more ideas on woodshedding for musicians, please check out

Woodshedding: The Articulation Game

Rhythm Spinner Game

Grouping Game

Bite Sized Pieces

Practice Session, part 6: Review

Review: Time to Revisit, Reflect, and Plan.

The sixth and final part of a productive practice session wraps everything up and puts a bow on it.

If you’re just starting this blog series, be sure to read the OVERVIEW and posts about the five other sections. The links are below.

  1. Warm up.
  2. Scales & Technique.
  3. Etudes.
  4. Repertoire.
  5. Improvisation.
  6. Review, warm-down, reflecting on goals and planning for the next practice session.

If we are thinking about a 30 minute practice session, the sixth part is minutes 28-30. At this point in your practicing, you are starting to get tired and your mind is ready for a break. Hold on for two more minutes… you still have some important work to do.

If we continue the analogy of the six-drawer cabinet, there are three items in this thin drawer at the bottom of the practice cabinet.

  1. review tricky “woodshedding” spots from repertoire or etudes
  2. warm down
  3. make a mental note of accomplishments and what needs attention next time

Now is the time to review any tricky spots that you were woodshedding in Part 4: Repertoire. If you are working to memorize your music, now is the time to test your memory. New advances in neuroscience are showing that interval training is critical to long term memory. Spacing out the learning in longer intervals leads to better memory storage, according to the theory of “Spaced Repetition.” Because you worked on repertoire pieces in the middle of your practice, you have had a little time in between. This is a good first interval. Simply go back to the hardest sections of your lesson materials and try them one or two more times. You’ll hit these places again in your next practice session to continue the spaced repetition.

Depending on how you are feeling, you may want to do a gentle warm-down. I feel the need to play low notes and slurs when my embouchure is tight from playing piccolo. Brass players usually need a warm-down time.

Before you end this practice session, think about what you were able to accomplish. Thank yourself for taking the time to practice. Acknowledge the good work and the progress. If you tackled something particularly hard, give yourself a mental pat on the back. Think about what you need to focus on for the next practice session. Planning for the next practice session will give you a head start on item #1 (Warm up, including goal setting).

Finally, allow for some incubation time. Several studies have shown that creative insights and new skills favor a “prepared mind.” (Link here to Seifert, Meyer, Davidson study.) Make sure you take a break every 30 minutes. That means you need to leave the practice room. Get a drink of water, take a walk, play a game. Perhaps the best thing you can do for your long term memory is get plenty of sleep. It seems that the brain is working on the music even when you are asleep. Have you ever heard the music you’ve been practicing in your dreams? I know I’m ready for a recital when my piece is playing as the background music in my dreams.

I hope this seven part series on the structure of a 30 minute practice session was helpful for you. Now, go practice!

Bite Sized Pieces (Woodshedding technique)

BITE SIZE PIECES – technique exercise

This blog post is part of a series on woodshedding. For more ideas on how to invigorate your practicing with new and creative ideas, check out the bog posts on the Articulation Game, Rhythm Spinner Game, Scale Card Game, and Karate Chops. Today’s blog post will offer some ideas for how to turn a long run of music notes into a smooth, effortless thing of beauty.

Long, fast runs can turn into a sloppy mess if we let the fingers run freely. Easy fingering combinations move more quickly than difficult ones, giving the passage an uneven texture. We must even out the technique to make the run sound good. Clean runs sound much faster than sloppy ones at the same tempo. Consider this example:


long muddy run


Let’s group the notes like this:

bite sized pieces

marked groups


You can pause after each group. Alternatively, you can articulate the first note of each group or pulse with the breath. Choose groups that make the most sense, ie. chromatic movement, scales. Try to break the groups when there is an unusual skip. In the example above, the notes are grouped together because they are chromatic. The notes that start groups are exceptions to the rule; in this case, the minor thirds are different than the half steps. We bring attention to these exceptions by making them the start of a new group.

When performing, we want to think of the groups but keep the original articulation. In practice and in the finished performance it’s simply too difficult for the brain to control all 22 notes. But small groups are manageable.
Creating groups will help the technique be cleaner and the run will sound faster. When playing fast runs, you must listen very carefully to hear every note. If you can’t hear each individual note, neither can your audience.

Woodshedding: Grouping Game

GROUPING GAME for your Woodshedding arsenal.

Woodshedding is the process of isolating a difficult section of music and practicing it until the technical issues are resolved. In other blog posts, I have offered games for changing articulations and rhythms. (See posts Rhythm Spinner Game, Articulation Game.) Today’s blog post will feature another strategy: changing how the notes are grouped. This changes where the accents are placed.

Think about your phone number for a moment. If you live in the US, your number is in the form 614-555-1212. We chunk the number into two sets of three digits and a final set of four numbers. Now, group your number differently. Let’s say 61-455-512-12. Or 6145-551-212. The order of the numbers did not change but our perception (and perhaps how easily they can be remembered) did change significantly.


Music is often grouped also. Here’s an example of four groups of three notes from a Handel Sonata:

woodshedding example

Giga from Handel Sonata

In this example, there are 12 notes split by slurs into four groups of threes. By changing the groupings, we alter how the brain perceives the notes. The order and rhythm remain the same, but the accents are different. Try playing the same passage in groups of two, four, or six as shown below.


Groups of two:

woodshedding example by 2

same notes, now in groups of two

Groups of four:


groups of 4


Groups of six:


groups of 6

In this exercise, we are playing the notes in the same order with the same rhythms. Two elements are changing:

  1. Different notes receive a small accent because they are the first of each grouping.
  2. The brain chunks them together in a new way.

Just as phone numbers are perceived differently when we changed the groupings of numbers, so too your brain is challenged when we change the groups of notes.

Rhythm Spinner Game

The Rhythm Spinner Game is an excellent tool for woodshedding difficult passages.

Like the Articulation Game, the Rhythm Spinner adds an element of chance to spice up your practicing.

For this game, you will need a hole punch, metal brad, and the chart below with arrow.

rhythm spinner game

rhythm spinner game

arrow for spinner game

arrow for rhythm spinner game

Punch a hole near the end of the arrow. Use a metal brad to connect the arrow to the center of the spinner.

Flick the arrow and play the difficult passage with the rhythm indicated. For instance, if the arrow lands on “Jazzy,” play the passage in a loose, uneven rhythm. (The opposite rhythm is on the other side of the circle.)

Whichever rhythm pattern is selected, play the music at a tempo fast enough to give you a challenge but slow enough that you can play all the notes correctly. When you have tried the first rhythm, spin again.

When the arrow lands on “as fast as possible” play the passage as quickly as possible, letting the fingers run without trying to control them. It may be sloppy or it may be miraculously clean. Simply notice if your finger memory is taking over or if you fingers seem to get “stuck” in one place. Don’t judge yourself and don’t try to make your fingers perfectly fast. Play the passage once or twice this way and then spin again.

When the arrow lands on the opposite side of the spinner – “robot fingers, slow and controlled” – be very deliberate about playing in a relatively slow tempo. You will want to feel each finger going up and down, like typing or hammering.

The other sections of the rhythm wheel show combinations of slow (S) and fast (F) rhythms. It will be naturally easier to begin the pattern with a slow note, but make sure you also practice with the longest note at the end of the four.

When you have tried all the rhythm patterns, go back and play the passage as written. Did it feel easier? Did you make fewer mistakes? Maybe you were able to go a bit faster this time.

Playing the Rhythm Spinner Game takes only a few minutes but it can save hours of time wasted in unproductive practicing.

Teachers, like the Articulation Game, the Rhythm Spinner Game helps randomize practice patterns. You will probably want to introduce the rhythms and model them in a lesson. This game can be modified for other time signatures and rhythms. In addition to helping woodshed a difficult passage, this game is useful in cementing common rhythm patterns. You can also make up your own rhythm patterns.

Woodshedding: The Articulation Game

“Woodshedding” is musician-speak for practicing, especially when working on difficult passages.

Woodshedding is the process of isolating a hard section of the music and practicing it until the technical issues are resolved. It is NOT playing a piece at a fast tempo from the beginning to the end at the finished tempo, nor is it mindless repetition. In my years as a teacher, I have found that woodshedding in a detailed, methodical, concentrated way is a struggle for many students.

Scientists are confirming what we already know – the brain craves novelty (Pure Novelty Spurs the Brain), and isolating tricky passages and practicing them correctly is the best path to mastery (Effective Practice Skills). When we practice wrong notes, we strengthen those neural pathways and make the mistake more likely to happen again.

The first step in fixing a problem is identifying it.

As you play through a piece of music, make a pencil mark on difficult sections. The way you mark you music is up to you, but make it obvious, (For more ideas about marking music, please refer to blog articles The Pencil Problem, and Miss It? Mark It. parts 1, 2, and 3.

Once you know which parts need “woodshedding,” you’re ready to go to work. Consider these two flummoxing measures from one of the Bach Sonatas for Flute:

music passage for woodshedding

woodshedding passage

I might be tempted to play these measures over and over again in the same way at the same tempo, but there will probably still be some wrong notes and a lot of frustration. This is the worst way to woodshed.

Is woodshedding always a grueling, unpleasant task? No! You can play games to give your brain the novelty and variety it craves. You will save time and reduce frustration too!

There are many ways to woodshed. Today’s blog post will focus on one way – changing the articulations. Note: this works best for wind instruments because we use our tongues to articulate. Pianists may not find much use for this game. String players, I’d be interested to hear if this is adaptable for your instruments.

You will need two dice and the following chart:

articulation rubric

roll two dice, play the articulation given

If you roll snake eyes (2), play the passage all tongued. If you roll 3, play slurring by two. If you roll 9, play the first note articulated and slur by 2 thereafter. And so forth. I’m not the first teacher to come up with the idea of changing the articulation to strengthen facility (many thanks to my teachers Tom Kennedy and Katherine Borst-Jones for showing me how to do this.) However, I hope you will find that it’s useful to see all of the articulations presented in the table above with the game suggestion. This presentation is my own creation.

Of course, you should do this exercise at a manageable tempo. The tempo should be quick enough to provide challenge, but there should be very few (if any) wrong notes.

This game is magical for learning scales too. (Also, see my blog post on The Game for Scales for another idea.)

Teachers, my students enjoy playing this game in their lessons. I have my students roll the dice when quizzing them on scales, but it is also useful when checking lesson assignments. Many exercises (thirds, chromatic scales, short etudes) are easily adaptable. Playing the Articulation Game will help students learn different slur patterns and will deepen their mastery of the assignments. Another helpful activity is the Rhythm Spinner Game that uses different rhythm patterns for woodshedding.

Keep this tool in your woodshedding arsenal. Changing the articulations is one effective way to improve technique on difficult passages, but there are other ways too. Future blog posts on woodshedding will share ideas about how to use the metronome for woodshedding.

Happy practicing!