Principles of Practice

(Origionally posted 3/2/2016)

In order to become successful at any musical instrument, you must first learn how to practice efficiently and effectively. For me, this process took many years of experimentation, and every day I am still learning what type of practice works best. While the specifics of daily practice are different for each musician, I have complied eight principles that will help streamline and improve your daily practice sessions.

1. Know why practicing is necessary. The purpose of practicing a musical instrument is threefold. They are listed in order of importance. First, practicing should be designed to eliminate any technical and musical problems in your playing that prevent you from becoming the best musician in your field. This is essential if you have aspirations of becoming a professional musician, or wish to win a better job. The musicians winning jobs practice efficiently and spend a significant amount of time working to better their technique so that they are free to express themselves musically. When you take an audition, you are competing against these musicians, and if you ever hope to win, you need to approach your practice as seriously as they do. Second, practicing your instrument serves to maintain your technique at the highest level. Practicing routine maintenance is the only way to keep your technique from regressing. If you are not moving forward, you are likely moving backward – standing still is not an option. Third (while very obvious it is also least important), you should use your practice sessions to learn and perfect the music that you will perform. The reason that this is the least important of the three purposes is that if your technique becomes impeccable, then you will learn and perfect music quickly. All music consists of an arrangement of scales, arpeggios, and other technical exercises. If you practice your technique properly, learning a new work is simply playing a game of connect the dots. However, if you find that your technical work is not allowing you to practice in this manner, you may want to invent exercises that help with the technique(s) in question. It is also wise to practice music that you will not perform, such as etudes. This will keep you well rounded and flexible.

2. Practice only when you have the necessary mental and physical energy to devote to the session. Practicing when you are tired, physically or mentally, can be counterproductive. You may start making mistakes that you ordinarily would not, or your muscles may physically rebel – forcing you to change the way you play (not for the better). A focused, productive session requires an immense amount of mental exertion – more so than the physical part. This means that you should practice during the parts of the day in which you feel most alert. Those times could be in the morning and mid afternoon, or in late afternoon and evening. They are different for each person, so you must discover what works best for you. If you practice while alert, your sessions produce better results than when you practice when mentally exhausted. Similarly, the physical demands of the instrument may limit your practice time. When you can no longer produce a great (not good – great) sound, or when your flexibility begins to suffer, it may be time end the session. Continuing to play may result in frustration, or worse, permanent damage. Remember that resting is equally important as time spent on your instrument. While you may not always have the luxury of playing when fresh, do not put excess strain on your muscles by over practicing.

3. Hold yourself to the highest standard of playing in your field. You should practice as if someone is listening critically to everything you play. You may be accustomed to having people listen to and analyze your performances, but maybe not your practice sessions. If you practice the way in which you wish to perform, you will take the sessions more seriously. Pretend your teacher, or colleagues are listening to your practice, as this will encourage you to bring your sessions into focus and will improve your work ethic. Even when you work on technique, play it artfully and with expression. You play solo pieces musically and with style, so play the technical exercises as you would play a solo or orchestral excerpt. It is unacceptable to play without style and musicality – especially in the practice room, since your practice habits come forward in performances. Playing out of tune, out of time, or with a bad sound, is also unacceptable. Raise your standards and listen to yourself as a committee or a knowledgeable audience would.

4. Have a goal for each session and fulfill it in the shortest amount of time possible. Make your practice sessions goal-oriented rather than time-oriented. By focusing on fulfilling goals in each session, you will not be tempted to over-practice in order to meet some preconceived time allotment. Time allotments help children practice their instruments on a daily basis, but they have unfortunately crept into university teaching. The only qualifications for practicing should be that you make improvement in each session, that you cover your bases with technical work, and that you are prepared to play any piece of music required of you. This takes a significant amount of time each day, but the amount of time should be allowed to fluctuate depending on how quickly you accomplish your goals. For example, your warm up and technical work could take anywhere from fifteen to ninety minutes. Working on a solo could take an equally wide range of time. Once you have worked through the techniques and literature you assigned for that day, stop. However, you may continue the session if you provide yourself with more goals and if you have the energy to continue. It is better for you to practice intelligently rather than practice for a long period of time. There is no glory in boasting that you practice for six hours a day, when you could accomplish the same amount of work in three hours or less.

5. Learn which techniques required daily, weekly, or monthly work. Younger musicians sometimes have the misconception that they need to cover every technique on a daily basis. This inevitably leads to drawn out technical sessions, which can produce high levels of mental and physical fatigue. Instead, you should compile a master list of the techniques required to play your instrument. From this list, pick your weakest couple (3-5) – these are the techniques requiring daily attention. After your warm up (less than 10 minutes in length), work on these techniques from the ground up. This means that you spend time thinking about how the technique works at its most basic level (for trumpet: air flow, muscle movement, etc.). By understanding everything about the technique, you will gain insight on how to fix it. You may even notice that most technical problems are connected through a common source, which, once corrected will improve the remainder of your technical problems. Next, pick several more (7-20)– these are the ones requiring weekly work. Since you should already have mastered these techniques, spend a small amount of time refining them. This work is necessary for maintaining proper technical function. Finally, the remaining techniques on the list are the ones requiring monthly visits. For trumpet, these techniques should include extended techniques, shakes, lip trills, etc. You do not need these often, but it is good to refresh your memory on how to play them. Please note that the three lists (other than the master list) should be in a state of flux. At least once a month, evaluate your strengths and weaknesses and adjust the list accordingly. Spend time working on your weaknesses so that they will become strengths. Once they do so, then find another technique to work on daily.

6. Do not play anything twice without fixing something. Another way of putting this is – Make sure that you have a purpose for everything you play. Before you mindlessly repeat a passage of music because “It doesn’t sound right,” think about what you want to change. If you do not have a specific reason for repeating it, then why should you? If you play an excerpt of a piece and scuff a few notes or play out of tune, play that section slower - or out of context - and fix your mistakes. Thinking that they will magically fix themselves on the second time is a risky game to play and you may very well play the passage badly the second time and further ingrain the mistakes into your playing. Also, do not deceive yourself by saying, “it’s just a fluke,” or “that’s never happened before…I’ll be fine.” If it happened once, it can happen again during a high-pressure situation – so fix every problem, no matter how small or infrequent it is. Taking the time to fix your mistakes will produce better and faster results. It will also keep you from re-learning the passage again in the future. The worst feeling is picking up a piece that you learned a month ago and finding that the problems that you “fixed” are still present. It may be frustrating to put in the slow, detailed work, but it will prevent problems down the road.

7. Record yourself every day. This should be an obvious statement to most musicians. In order to assess your playing properly, you need to listen to yourself on a regular basis. When you play the recording, approach it with the mindset of a teacher or a panel of professional musicians. Ask yourself, “Would I hire this person to play in X ensemble?” or, “Would I buy a recording of this?” If your answer is “no,” then ask yourself, “Why not?” Write down your suggestions of what to alter as if you were giving comments to the person playing. Be completely honest and do not make excuses for the playing. However, keep your comments constructive and helpful. After you have written your comments, fix the problems in the excerpt of music with concentrated work (see point 6). Do not play the entire piece again until you have addressed each issue. When you do completely play the piece, have the mindset of a performer and trust that the work you accomplished will have fixed the problems that you heard.

8. Learn the tendencies of each of your instruments. If you play multiple instruments regularly or semi-regularly, it is important to learn their tendencies (pitch, and other). This is especially important for trumpet players who need to play rotary or piccolo trumpet. For example, the pitch tendencies on the rotary trumpet are significantly different from the piston trumpet, and the response and timbre differences can prove misleading. You should spend time working through technical exercises on each instrument you own. The only way to sound competent on each is to play them often.

If you have questions about the content of this article, or wish to see a breakdown of my personal practice schedule (and exercises), please contact me via the contact page on my website, or leave a comment with your contact information.

n addition, in the summer of 2016, I will begin to sell a series of books that help with technical work on the trumpet. The first two books concentrate on double tonguing and triple tonguing and they contain exercises that relate to the practice principles I have listed in the above article. Specifically, these multiple tonguing books help me maintain my double and triple tonguing. They are also challenging enough that, after working through the books, I feel comfortable playing almost any multiple tonguing passage of music in my job.

Philip Hembree