Index Cards as a Practice Tool

Horn players today have a remarkable array of technological gadgets available to them – incredibly accurate electronic tuners and metronomes for instance – as well as lots of online tools and smartphone apps.  I use technology a lot in my teaching and practicing, but today’s post is about a very low-tech, but highly effective, practice aid…index cards.  These little 3X5 inch pieces of paper are very handy, and I use them for various purposes in my studio.

The first way I use index cards is to keep track of important playing concepts.  I have one taped to my music stand (see picture at right), and another one inside my daily warm-up and routine.  Each card contains several short phrases that help me stay focused on what I consider to be important elements of horn playing.   For example, over the last several years I’ve jotted down things like:

  • Release tension in my neck
  • Relax aperture, shoulders, and neck
  • soft abdomen
  • whistle, forward, simplify
  • expand the back
  • high range=laser beam air

Most of these concepts are of course borrowed from other players and teachers, although I will often rephrase something if it makes more sense that way.  As my ideas about playing grow and change, I either edit what’s on these cards or start a new one. In this way the cards act as a kind of playing journal – whenever I hit upon a concept or train of thought that seems to really work, I make sure to take a few seconds and write it down on one of my index cards.  I first heard about this idea from my former teacher Douglas Hill, who mentioned that Phillip Farkas did something very similar.  There are also several passages I believe in Nancy Jordan Fako’s book Philip Farkas & His Horn: A Happy Worthwhile Life which describe Farkas’s practice “shed” as being filled with various notes and ideas on horn playing.  Many of these notes later found their way I’m sure into his publications.

Another way I’ve used index cards is to practice orchestral excerpts for auditions.  Write the name of an excerpt on each index card, and then shuffle the cards.  Practicing this way gives you experience performing the excerpts in a random order, but ensures that you play through them all every time – very useful in the last few weeks leading up to an audition.  This method can also be easily applied to scales – include major, minor, and other modes to keep things interesting.  While I’d be willing to bet that there is an app for this, I like having the actual stack of cards in my hand or on the music stand.  It probably has something to do with successfully making it all the way through a pile of scales or excerpts and watching the stack shrink.

Do you have a creative way of using index cards – or anything else low-tech – in your practicing?  If so, I’d love to hear about them!

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I use them in a similar way to yourself (James) being, visual cues for habits I am trying to change. I do this weekly so I am always revisiting what perceived “issues” I have in my playing. This, paired with my small journal helps me keep on track in regards to development.

Another way I use the ‘audition’ cards is I write the key components of the excerpt on them, again giving myself a visual cue. As time goes on in preparation I remove these cues until it is only the name of the excerpt. (in a perfect world since time is not always such a luxury). At that point I feel totally prepared so that I can play from a blank part with no markings and nail it every time.


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