Posts Tagged ‘practice’

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Make the Commitment

October 23, 2017

Playing the trumpet is easy.  What I mean by this is that the concepts involved aren’t complicated, and that anyone can do it.  I can teach anyone how to play the trumpet in 30 minutes.  Playing the trumpet well takes a considerable amount of practice.  No one plays at a professional level right away.

As you’re working to learn more and get better, it’s important to remember a few things.

Understanding a concept is just the first step in being able to demonstrate it

Your practice time should be spent putting the concepts you learn intellectually into practical use.  As we discussed with Scales, knowing that the Ab major scale has four flats doesn’t necessarily mean you can play it.  Similarly, knowing that getting a full sound throughout the entire register of the instrument is vital is not the same as doing it.

Oversimplifying can be as bad as overcomplicating

It can be easy to think- “oh, I just need to do this one thing, then everything else will fall into place.”  When faced with the frustration of that not working, it’s easy to make the leap to- “it’s just too difficult…you have to be born with it…if only I knew the secret.”  As a teacher, I go out of my way to make things as simple as possible.  Notice the “as possible.”  That’s the important part.  Oversimplifying can lead to not getting the result you want.  Overcomplicating can lead to quitting in frustration.  I don’t like either of those outcomes.  It’s critical to understand what you’re working towards, and to proceed down the simplest path to get there.

There are no shortcuts

This is a big one.  There are still people out there making outrageous claims about near-instant improvement.  Growth takes time.  If you are not willing to invest the time and energy necessary, find something else to do.  If you’re spending time looking for a magic solution, you’re wasting time you could be spending getting better.

With that in mind, your work should show improvement.  If you’re practicing dutifully and not seeing any improvement, it’s time to look for a new path.

Commitment

This brings me to the title of this entry.  On the surface, some of what is written above might appear to be contradictory.  I’m saying that trumpet is easy, but takes time.  I’m telling you to look for the simplest path for growth, but not look for shortcuts.  I believe that anyone can understand how to play the trumpet in 30 minutes, but being great at it takes much longer.

Too often, people seem to be looking for a checklist of exactly what they need to do to get where they say they want to go.  It’s almost never this simple.  True learning is not a straight line, or a destination.  It’s a long term investment in yourself and a process for continued growth.

No one else can make this commitment for you.  You can take words of encouragement as motivation.  You can also take people telling you “you’ll never make it” as motivation to prove them wrong (this is not my favorite, as it is working from a negative place- I prefer to leave the “you’ll never make it” people behind and forget them).  Ultimately the commitment is about only one person- you.  Once you decide to make this commitment, (and I mean this in the nicest way possible) others don’t matter.  As a student, it can be difficult to be around a lot of other people on similar paths to yours.  You might see people winning auditions, competitions, and jobs that you really want.  Remember this: someone else’s success is not your failure.

Once you’ve made the commitment, there’s no need to advertise it.  Your commitment isn’t to anyone but yourself.  If you are truly making a change, your actions, and the results of those actions, will speak louder than words ever could.

 

 

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Do You REALLY Know it?

September 25, 2017

When I ask new students if they know all of their major scales, I usually get “yes” responses.  Then I pick up my horn and say, “Okay, let’s play them.  First me, then you.”  It’s at that point that I can tell by the look in their eyes whether or not they really know them.  Most of them know how major scales are built, and can tell me how many flats or sharps are in the key signatures.  That’s a great start to REALLY knowing.

Let me ask you a question:

What’s the 13th letter of the alphabet? 

Right now, most of you are either thinking (or singing to the tune of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star): “A-B-C-D-E-F-G” while counting on your fingers.  If I asked you if you know the alphabet, you would most likely answer yes.

I want a deeper knowledge of scales and music.

This brings us to memorization.  For some, memorization has become a bad word.  For others, it’s an absolute necessity.  This is where the problems begin.  Memorizing data without understanding it is useless.  For example, if you can tell me that the Ab major scale has four flats, and they are Bb, Eb, Ab, and Db, but still can’t play an Ab major scale, you still have work to do.  Having no data at all will make your job much harder.  If you don’t know how to build an Ab major scale, you’ll probably have a hard time playing one.

There are things that need to be not just memorized, but truly learned so that you can progress.  There is information that you need to own.  And here’s a secret- the more you own, the better.

Smartphones have made it very easy to not know anything.  If you need directions, a recipe, stats from a football game on Saturday, or the name of that person on that show that was that other character from that movie- there’s an app that can help you.  I say this as someone that uses my smartphone regularly for these purposes.

When it comes to music, I want you to start taking responsibility for REALLY knowing your material.  Let’s start with scales as an example:

  1. Can you play all of your major scales from memory?
  2. What about minor scales (natural, melodic, and harmonic)?
  3. What about modes?
  4. Can you play them in 3rds?
  5. 4ths?
  6. You are, of course, playing them over the entire range of your instrument, right?

If you’re thinking- wow, that’s a lot!- you’d be right.  So where do you start?  Simple-with something, anything, that you know that you don’t REALLY know.  Set aside a little bit of time every day to get better.  That little bit of time, every day, will add up quickly, and you’ll start seeing results.

Once you start working in this way, you can start seeing music in a bigger picture.  You won’t be looking note-to-note; you’ll be seeing phrase-to-phrase.  And once you starting taking the responsibility of REALLY knowing music, your performances will improve, and your growth will skyrocket.

I love etudes.  I use them in my practice and in my teaching.  In the abstract, learning any one etude for your lesson isn’t the most important thing in the world.  Students will often ask the questions (especially when it comes to advanced math): “Do I really need to know this?” and “Am I ever going to use this again?”  Although you may not be asked to play etude #19 in public at any point in your career, the cumulative knowledge you gain by taking the time to REALLY know each piece assigned will, over time, help your overall musical growth immensely.

There are always more ways to practice, and always more information to learn.

This is why being a musician is the best way to live.

 

 

 

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Smart(phone) Practice

September 1, 2017

The school year has started.  For a lot of you, that means back to lessons and ensembles, with a whole lot of new music for you to prepare.  When preparing music, you need to pay attention to detail, work out the technical and musical challenges, and make sure you’re playing your instrument fundamentally well.

Don’t forget to practice performing!

Too often musicians spend so much time preparing a piece, they leave performance out of their practice.  Once the piece has been studied, the “hard parts” are worked out, and the phrasing has been decided, the practice session ends.  There needs to be one more step.

Practice performing the piece.

How, you might ask?  Good question.  For those of you with smartphones (and I think that’s a lot of you), try adding this to your daily practice.

  1. After the “normal practice” of your piece, put your phone on your music stand, and video record a performance of the piece.
  2. DON’T WATCH IT YET!
  3. When you are ready to practice this piece next (at least one day later), watch the video.
  4. Notice what you did well, as well as what needs work.  Delete the video.
  5. Repeat steps 1-4.

Adding this to your daily practice gives you the opportunity to show yourself exactly what others see in your performance.  That’s why you don’t watch the video immediately.  When you give yourself that day, something that you might have not noticed could stick out, while something else that bothered you in the moment might be no big deal.  You might also notice aspects of your performance that you hadn’t considered before (posture, hand position, funny faces that you make while playing).

Since you are the only one watching the recordings, it’s up to you to be completely honest with yourself.  If not, it’s like cheating at solitaire- sure you may have “won,” but who cares?  Holding yourself accountable for daily performance can certainly be frustrating, especially at first.  Done correctly, you’re gaining valuable performing experience that will have you better prepared when you next step on stage.

 

 

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Ownership

May 19, 2017

It’s amazing how many times I’ve heard:

“I aced that test.”

or

“I played great.”

And from the same people:

“The teacher gave me a D.”

or

“Umm…my valve stuck…the print was too small…with Venus in retrograde there was just no way.”

It’s very easy to take credit for the good stuff.  When everything is going well and you’re getting positive feedback, ownership is a piece of cake.  It’s when stuff starts going poorly that ownership gets more difficult to assume.  It’s not unusual to look for excuses, or someone else to blame.  Resist that urge.  You must own all that goes right along with all that doesn’t.

Remember this:

A bad performance doesn’t make you a bad person.

Musicians, like many other professionals, often tie their work to their overall self-esteem.  This is very dangerous.  Playing trumpet well does not make you a good person.  Taking pride in a job well done is very different than believing that, because you happen to play well, you’re a gift for the world to enjoy.  On the opposite side, a bad concert doesn’t make you some kind of sub-human never allowed to see sunlight ever again.

While it’s natural to feel good after playing well and not as good after playing poorly, what you do with those feelings is very important.  If you take your good performance as a sign of how great you are, it’s unlikely you’ll keep getting better.  And if you believe your bad performance proves every negative thought that has ever entered your head about yourself, it’s also unlikely you’ll grow from that.

The first thing my students hear from me after finishing playing something is usually, “How do you think that went?”  The answer to that question will show what the student noticed about that performance.  I want to know what the student thinks went well as well as what needs work.  Because most of the time we spend practicing is alone, it’s vital that we learn self-diagnosis.  Once we figure out what was good and what still needs attention, we know what to practice.  At the end of most lessons, my students hear, “So you know what to practice?  And how to practice it?”  When the answer to both questions is yes, I let them go, looking forward to hearing them the following week.

To truly enjoy the gratification that comes from a great performance, and you should, you must completely own the frustration of those performances that weren’t your best.

One last thing- the day after that performance, no matter how it goes:  Get back in the practice room.  There’s still plenty of work to be done.

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“In addition to,” not “Instead of.”

September 23, 2015

Now that it appears to actually be Fall and school is going full speed ahead, practice time is at a premium.  I’ve written about Time Management before, and though this topic is related, today the discussion focuses on what you want to accomplish.

I’m a big believer in versatility.  Versatility, for our musical purposes, means capable of playing in a wide variety of musical styles and musical settings.  It does not mean there must be a compromise in how you play.  There are still people out there that insist that each player is only allowed to do one thing well.  They will throw around the phrase “jack of all trades, master of none” to those trying to do more than one thing.  They are wrong.

Before you say, “but what about Player X?  That player only does one thing, and does it exceedingly well,” let’s be perfectly clear.  As a player, you get to decide what kind of music you want to play.  Some might choose jazz.  Some might choose orchestral.  Others might choose integrating Tuvan Throat Singing with trumpet.  Just because a player you respect has chosen to focus exclusively on one style does not mean that is the only way to achieve excellence in that style.

Here’s what my performance schedule looked like for one week in June:

Wednesday June 10- Solo Recital – Bert Truax School of Trumpet Camp

Saturday June 12- Faculty Brass Quintet Concert – IU Summer Music 2015

Sunday June 13- Music of Simon and Garfunkel – St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

These are three very different performances, all happening in the same week.  To be able to do this takes us to the title.  When people are looking to expand their musical horizons, that means something new must be introduced into the practice regimen.  When introducing something new, it can be easy to remove something that you’ve been practicing to make room.  This is “Instead of” practicing.  While practicing the new material instead of something else, you might be gaining some ground on the new stuff, but you’re losing ground on the old.

If you want to be versatile, it means more practice.  Being able to play a variety of styles requires regular practice on everything you want to be able to play.  That’s “In addition to” practice.  I know there is only so much time in each day, so you must be smart about it.

Here’s how:  Make a list.  That’s right- make a list of all of things you want to be able to do.  It can be technical- “I want to be able to play a Double C.”  It can be musical- “I want to be able to actually swing.”  It can be general- “I want my piccolo trumpet playing to sound like Maurice Andre.”  It can be specific- “I want to be able to perform the Chaynes Concerto.”

Once you’ve made your list, you have a blueprint of what you need to practice.  This list is added to the daily practice that you’re already doing which includes: fundamentals, stuff your teacher assigned you, and music you’re responsible for performing.

Here’s where most people make a huge mistake and give up.  They start at the top of the list, and might get halfway through it on Day 1.  On Day 2 they start at the top of the list again, and might get just past halfway through.  Try this instead.  Wherever you stop on Day 1 is where you start on Day 2.  Wherever you stop on Day 2 is where you start on Day 3.  You get the picture.

Too often, we get wrapped up in the short term thinking that we need to learn to do something…NOW!  If you can start thinking long term, then you’ll be working steadily and consistently…and getting better at all of the things you want.

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The Power of Mental Focus

May 13, 2015

In the time I’ve been teaching trumpet lessons, I’ve worked with students of all ages, interest levels, and experience- beginners getting their horns for the first time, high school students, professionals, come back players, and of course college students.   For the long term growth as a musician and trumpet player, one of the most important concepts (and sometimes the most difficult to teach) needed is mental focus.

When I first started teaching beginners, this is what I told them:

“If you practice everything I give you, the stuff you are responsible for in band is going to be pretty easy.  You’re going to sound really good in band, and your director will be very happy with you.  Your director and the other kids in band will think you’re very good.  But we’ll know the truth.”

Then I would explain to them what I meant by “the truth.”  The truth is that our playing is always changing.  Done right, our playing is always growing.  In the big picture we need to do two things:

  1. Practice how to play the horn. In other words- fundamentals.
  2. Practice what to play on the horn.  In other words- music.

(There’s a lot of overlap here, as fundamentals should be played musically, and playing music can certainly inform our technique and spur fundamental growth…but that’s a discussion for another day.)

So “the truth” is that there is always work to be done on our playing.  Always.

There are two reasons I told my beginners this.  They are:

  1. to give them confidence when playing in a group, whether in a performance or rehearsal, that they have the tools necessary to do a terrific job.
  2. to stave off the stereotype of the “cocky trumpet player” by letting them know that there’s always more work to be done.  When things go well, it’s a result of good practice, and not because they were anointed by magic fairies at birth with a special potion that made them the greatest players the world has ever heard.

This worked well. Since I started teaching college, it has surprised me how many students get this backwards.  I hear how their thought process in rehearsals and performances focuses on what is lacking, and the thought process in the practice room focuses on how good everything is.

I found this troubling.  So, like always, let’s start with the easy stuff:

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses

This seems like a simple enough statement.  Here’s why I bring it up.  When in a group, it can be easy to focus on someone else’s strengths, especially if they are your weaknesses.  This is a quick road to Insecureville, which is right next to Underconfident City.  Once you arrive there, it’s very difficult to play your best, as you will be telling yourself how much you can’t do.  Similarly, there are those that like to focus on someone else’s weaknesses, especially if it matches their strengths.  This is the express lane to Conceitedton, which borders Cockyberg.  Once you arrive there, you are so sure of yourself you don’t play your best because, no matter what comes out of your horn, you’ve already convinced yourself you’re the greatest thing since the invention of nachos (mmmm….nachos).

These are bad places for your mind to dwell.  Here’s how mental focus can help.

When practicing, focus on your weaknesses

Again, this may seem simple.  For a lot of people, closing the door to the practice room and really admitting to and working on a weakness can be very difficult.  Once you really commit to this kind of focus while practicing, you’ll see the benefits.

Which brings us to:

When performing, focus on your strengths

When it’s time to play with others, your mental focus needs to shift. Finding the mental place of being confident without being cocky can be a challenge.  Your mental focus will be most beneficial if it is focused on what you bring to the performance.  If you’ve been practicing well, this can help, as you’ve built a habit of playing the instrument well fundamentally and musically in the practice room.

The Circle of Growth

If you can take charge of your mental focus, you can build a circle of growth.  At the top of the circle is practice.  Since you’re focusing on your weaknesses in the practice room, you’re getting better and better at the instrument, building your confidence in what you’re able to do.  At the bottom of the circle is performance.  Since you’re focusing on your strengths in performance, your performances become better, building upon the good habits you’ve build in the practice room.  After your performance, you take what didn’t go as well as you’d like in the performance into the practice room and treat it as a weakness to be worked on.

Keep doing this.  Forever.

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The Case Against Buzzing

April 22, 2015

Buzzing seems to be a divisive topic in the brass world.  Some consider it an absolute necessity.  Others say it’s useless.  Although the title of this article may lead you to believe I’m against buzzing, I’m not.  I am against bad technique.  And there are some dangers in buzzing to watch out for.

First let’s clarify what we mean by buzzing.  There are 3 large categories:

  1. Free buzzing- Making sounds with only the lips.
  2. Rim buzzing- Using only the rim of a mouthpiece (or a mouthpiece visualizer) to make sound.
  3. Mouthpiece buzzing- Using a mouthpiece to make sound.

Now let’s move on to the fun part.  When buzzing in any of the ways mentioned above, you are not doing exactly the same thing as when you are playing the instrument.  When free buzzing or buzzing on a rim, the sound is made at the lips.  When on a mouthpiece, the sound comes out the end of the mouthpiece.  As soon as you put the mouthpiece back into the horn, the sound comes out of the bell.  This difference is significant.  The instrument provides a certain amount of resistance that obviously does not exist when buzzing.  This brings us to:

DANGER #1: Creating Resistance

When looking for the same exact feel as playing the instrument, some people will resort to creating their own resistance.  Often, this is done in the neck.  People will tighten up their necks when buzzing to get the same feel of resistance.  Sometimes this can be easier to see than to feel.  If you’re concerned, buzz while standing in front of a mirror, and look at the side of your neck.  Once you start doing this while buzzing, it can be difficult to stop doing when you’re playing.

A really good exercise that I’ve seen several people use in buzzing is making a siren sound.  First, take a nice, easy breath.  Next, buzz a comfortable low pitch and gliss up and down.  The aim is to make both the feel and the sound very free.  While playing the trumpet with this smooth, consistent blow, we build the coordination of seamlessly moving from the center of pitch on one note to the next.  Since the lips, rim, and/or mouthpiece provide no help in finding the center of pitch, we are now at:

DANGER #2: Placing Notes

The siren exercise shows how buzzing does not help finding the middle of any one pitch.  But when people move to playing simple melodies or exercises that require specific pitches, often they will look for the same feel of certainty as they get when playing the trumpet.  This can lead to a slight hitch just before the initial attack, and/or, tonguing too hard (to put that note in place).  When working with specific pitches, sit at a piano and play the note first.  If you don’t have a piano, most smartphones have tunings apps that will also play any specified pitch.  Get it in your ear, then take your best shot.  Should you miss, gliss to the center of the pitch before moving on.  When moving between notes, start by thinking of each interval as a gliss.  If you want to have beautiful intervals in the music you play, start by blowing from one note to the next, making each interval a mini-siren.  As you get better, you’ll be able to make the transitions quicker without placing them.  Then, when you make the transition to playing the instrument, the trumpet will actually make it easier when you are blowing from note-to-note.

The last big problem to tackle today is one of my favorites: range.  There are those who say that to be able to play the note on a trumpet, you need to be able to buzz it.  I have not found this to be true.  To be able to do so brings us to:

DANGER #3: Physical Manipulation

When it comes to range, trumpet players will do all kinds of crazy things to try and play higher.  I’ll be happy to revisit how I believe range to just another aspect of playing that can be improved with dedicated practice and good technique, just like sound, articulation, flexibility, and finger dexterity, another time.  But for now, I want to warn you about the dangers of wacky physical manipulations to make higher notes come out while buzzing.  The first one is covered above in DANGER #1.  Part of trumpet playing, and this includes playing in the upper register, is blowing against the resistance of the trumpet.  Without that resistance, especially in the upper register, people will lock up their necks to get it.  There are several examples on the internet.  Another physical manipulation to watch out for is stopping your air.  Ideally, when playing the trumpet, you take a nice easy breath and, coordinated with the tongue, blow right back out.  The air does not stop.  But some will demonstrate upper range, especially while buzzing, by taking a breath, holding it, then using the tongue to release the air and put that note in its place (see DANGER #2 above).  This technique might get the note to speak, but the sound will be thinner and trumpet playing has now gotten harder by adding two steps: 1) stopping the air, and 2) restarting the air.  The last physical manipulation I want to warn you about today is mouthpiece pressure.  Generally speaking, I don’t see a lot a problems with too much pressure while playing the trumpet.  The problem certainly exists, but I don’t think it to be as big of a problem as others.  Mouthpiece buzzing, especially into the upper register, is a different story.  Trumpet players will mash that mouthpiece as hard as they can to get higher notes to speak.  One way to combat this is to hold the mouthpiece with your thumb and index finger at the spot where it meets the trumpet.  If you’ve been playing any length of time, there’s already a line there.  Use it.

As you can see, I don’t hate buzzing, or think it’s inherently evil.  It can be valuable if practiced well.  Dedicated is good.  Smart and dedicated is better.