Practice Lab: To Build Technique Faster, Try a Ladder

We all know what it’s like to work hard to improve an aspect of our technique, whether it’s a fundamental skill like tonguing or something specific like a fingering pattern in a piece of music.  We approach it in all the ways we know we’re supposed to: start slowly, speed up gradually, alternate between faster and slower tempi, break the pattern into pieces, vary the rhythm, etc. And then do it over and over again.  Applied deliberately, these time tested techniques do produce results, but they require many hours of repetition, and can leave us feeling impatient and wondering which practice technique to try next.

I can’t eliminate the hours of practice required to master a technical skill.  What I can offer is an addition to your toolkit that will improve your efficiency in both developing new skills and improving existing ones.  

This tool is the ladder.

What is a ladder?

A ladder is simply a way of structuring an exercise into periods of work and rest that maximizes the power of repetition and builds technical endurance.

Why focus on endurance?  Think about a fundamental skill like articulation.  We may be able to tongue quickly in short bursts, but struggle to sustain longer stretches of rapid articulation. It isn’t speed we lack, but endurance.  Endurance requires our technique to be both economical and relaxed, which will, in turn, enable us to go faster. The process of building technique becomes a feedback loop of ever-increasing endurance and speed.

Here’s how the ladder works.  Perform one repetition of whatever you are working on.  Rest for the amount of time it took you to do that repetition.  Then increase the length of the repetition and rest cycles one beat at a time as you work your way “up” the ladder.  I’ll use articulation again as an example.

Play 1 beat, rest 1 beat

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Play 2 beats, rest 2 beats

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Play 3 beats, rest 3 beats

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Play 4 beats, rest 4 beats

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And so on, adding one beat of playing and one beat of rest each time. (You might be wondering, how many repetitions should you go up to? Hold on—we’ll answer that question in a bit.)

At the “top” of the ladder, reverse the process and shorten the repetitions by 1 beat in each cycle:

Play 3 beats, rest 3 beats

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Play 2 beats, rest 2 beats

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Play 1 beat, rest 1 beat

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That’s the ladder! It’s a simple process that produces real results.

The Ladder in Action

You can work the ladder in one of two ways.

Option 1

A repeating ladder with a target number of repetitions/cycle

Choose a number of repetitions for the top of your ladder, and repeat the entire sequence until you feel slight fatigue but haven’t experienced muscle failure.  For me, this means that my tongue feels tired but is not stuttering or cramping, or I might need to concentrate to maintain my evenness or correct tonguing form. The example below shows a 4-beat long repeating ladder.

A four-beat repeating ladder

A four-beat repeating ladder

When it becomes easy to do several cycles without fatigue, you can increase the difficulty of the exercise by increasing either the tempo or the number of target repetitions.

Option 2

A single ladder with a variable number of repetitions/cycle

In this version, you perform as many repetitions as you can at the top of the ladder and still get back down to the bottom.  The goal is still to end the exercise experiencing slight fatigue, but not muscle failure. If that happens, the ladder has too many repetitions for the given speed.  

It takes trial and error to establish the right number of repetitions, but it only needs to be done once and it becomes a baseline by which to measure progress.  When choosing my ladder length, I usually start the turn around when I feel the first hint of fatigue, or find that I have to concentrate to maintain my accuracy, form, or tempo.  At that point, I should be able to make it back down the ladder. You’ll know you’re improving when you can make the ladder longer!

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Which option should you choose?  I alternate between both since each challenges us in different ways.  We could describe Option 1 as a higher volume, lower intensity exercise, since the relatively short number of repetitions at the top of the ladder is not too taxing, and the fatigue comes from repeating the entire ladder.  In contrast, Option 2 is a lower volume, higher intensity ladder.  We will end up with fewer overall repetitions, but the intensity of effort at the top of the ladder will be much greater.

focus on form

As always, form is everything.  My approach to articulation is a topic for another post.  The important thing is to ensure that, whatever your method of tonguing, you are performing that method correctly and economically.  Excess motion=loss of speed.  If your form is compromised, or you can’t improve it during the course of the exercise, then the tempo is too fast.

In future installments, I’ll show how ladders can be applied to other aspects of technique such as tonguing speed, metered trills, and more.