rharvey at brassworks-music.com
Thu May 22 16:59:25 CDT 2008
Here are some of my ideas about practicing. The first two passages are
extracts from classes I have given at music colleges in London. The
third is a chapter from my BrassWorkBook for Trombone (Bk 1 in a
series of 3 - details at www.brassworks-music.com if you are
interested.) There is some duplication between them but they each had
a slightly different purpose and so things are expressed in different
Q1: Is practice necessary? Why Practice?
Some players play well without apparently needing to practise.
They have probably started with good physical set up and developed
good habits while playing in bands etc. The good has been well
reinforced through what amounts to constant practice while performing.
(Anyone in this category can go now)
Most players are not so lucky and need to work at basic technique to
develop sound, flexibility, production, legato range and stamina. All
of this is necessary if we are to be flexible musicians and adjust as
required by the needs of performance.
There may be years of bad technique to un-consolidate. This can only
be done by constant attention to new, improved techniques and
sufficient repetition for the new to replace the old in the muscle
Having gained some degree of excellence it is important to maintain
it.Time spent largely unemployed in an orchestra or the effects of
ageing on the muscles can and will mean reduced technical
response.Practice sessions need to be sensibly organised to ensure
that deterioration is prevented from becoming a threat to ones
This is all to do with basic ability. If faced with a particularly
demanding playing task then extra effort has to be made in order to
develop the necessary skill or stamina.
Leaving aside musicianship requirements, playing a brass instrument
is a physical skill akin to an athletic activity; constant, sensible
training is essential if the relevant physical parts are to be in
shape to do what you want exactly when you want.
Q2: How should practice be organised?
What are your realistic long term goals?
How do you want to be playing in a year or 2?
What do you want to sound like?
What level of technical skill do want to have?
2) Short-term objectives:
What do I need to address this week,month/term?
What are my particular technical targets?
How best do I maintain and develop my basic skills?
What exercises/routines will work best?
How much time do I need to devote to basic maintenance?
How much time do I need to devote to developing skills?
How much time can I find in my schedule?
Am I doing the right sort/amount of practice?
How do I set realistic, attainable and measurable targets?
Q3: How do I develop a good attitude towards practice?
1) There are no gimmicks that realistically turn you from a
struggling player into a virtuoso. Good advice might help to approach
the activity in a more productive manner and sometimes results can be
quickly obvios. But mostly improvement comes only with medium to
long term practice. That is not to say that a few days concentrated
practice on a particular aspect of technique cannot pay dividends. But
even this needs to be consolidated and reviewed constantly if it is
to become more or less an automatic feature of your playing. In other
words you need to work, work and work and you have to accept that
there is little chance of substabtial improvement in your plaing
2) Work for its own sake, though is probably not very helpful. It
could be harmful if all you are doing is repeating over and over
again old faults. Each time you play a poor quality note it reinforces
the bad habit and you will be extending the time it will take to
develop good habits. Stop now practising without thought and learn to
focus on the matters in hand. This can range from the aspects of
playing a single good quality note to building an extended phrase.
Knowing what you are trying to do and what it should sound like are
essential. Then there must be intense concentration on the process.
You should try to give the best possible performance of the exercise.
Remember that you are trying to consolidate and reinforce good
3) If the concentration os properly focused then, however simplistic
the means to your end, you will find yourself in a ‘zone’, fully
preoccupied by your desire to achieve good results. Practising while
watching TV or otherwise distracting activities may sometimes help
in simply reinforcing if the basics are good. Even then it is easy to
become mindlessly repetitive and lacking in sufficient focus to avoid
bad habits creeping in. Best not to do it.
Q4: What materials should I use for practice sessions?
1) In order to concentrate fully on the technical matter in hand, it
is best to use the simplest of materials for basic practice routines.
Many players have their own exercises that help them with their
particular approach and requirements. There are numerous books of
warm-ups, flexibilities etc and these can be useful in directing the
attention to particular techniques. Use whatever material you wish but
make sure it is suitable for what you are working on.
2) When attempting to develop technical skills the exercises need to
make demands on your technique. Choose or write exercises that will
give you the opportunity to move forward at a reasonable pace. The
carrot needs to dangled somewhere in front of you but not so far that
you trip up trying to reach it.
3) When faced with something more advanced to work at, choose
specific exercises that will help with the technique required. For
example a difficult passage in a solo item can be isolated and made
into an exercise in its own right.
Do you have a burning desire to play music and play it well?
Do you at least have a burning desire to earn a decent living?
What are your means to this end?
-ensemble performance experience
What are your individual goals in the short, medium, long term?
How do you organise your practice to achieve these goals?
-Overall Objective: specific target area
-Means: choice of material.
-Performance - public emulation ideas to ensure full attention:
-TV show demo of how a trombone sounds
-last minute call to high profile concert
-someone important in next room
-1 note audition (busy panel choose a single note at random from
audition tape to select suitable candidates)
-last minute of recording session - final take
-remember that in spite of all the technical considerations, you
must aim for a good sound - instead of thinking just about what is
going on at the embouchure/lungs etc, try to make the air in the room
resonate - especially if it is a large hall.
-Awareness/assessment: must make judgements and assess (positively)
-Review; store success, delete failure; decide how to proceed
Chapter 11 :Practice
A few lucky players seem to be able to pick up an instrument at any
time and play with great facility and a good sound. Unfortunately most
of us need to work at our playing, firstly to develop the good habits
that give control and quality to the sound and then to maintain them.
However, whether we are a beginner or a professional player it is just
as important not to waste valuable time on futile practice. Practice
time is best used if we have a clear idea of what we are trying to
achieve and how we are going to set about it. Trombone players tend to
play a lot less in orchestras than strings or woodwind and even the
other brass. Often, in the working situation, we do too little to
maintain our ‘match fitness’. Ideally we do our preparation in a
relaxed and private situation before the rehearsal but this is not
always possible and any time available should be used sensibly.
Why do I need to practise:
As we learn a physical or mental process, repetition allows the
brain to recognise the stimulus and respond with what it expects to be
the correct reflex. Any repetitive activity will reinforce the memory;
the more recognisable the activity becomes to the brain the stronger
will be the reflex to it. This will apply to bad playing habits as
well as good. It is important therefore, that we are constantly
vigilant that as we practise we are providing the memory bank with
good information and not nurturing bad habits to become yet stronger.
It is always possible to break bad conditioning but the more deep-
rooted it is the longer it takes. Better to avoid it in the first place.
What should I practise:
Before you start the session set out, mentally or in a written
schedule if it helps, what the aims of the session are. This may be a
simple list of basic exercises to develop or maintain technical
aspects of your playing or it may include work on studies, pieces or
repertoire. Even the more general repertoire-based practice can be
broken down to include work on specific trouble points with some
thoughts about how to help the specific technique required. Using a
set programme of exercises can help to direct the attention but try
not to let repetition of this programme become mindless. Always remind
yourself why you are doing it.
How should I practise:
If you have decided what your objectives are, when you begin to play
you will immediately be working productively. Continually concentrate
on what you are doing so that you can assess the progress. It may help
to imagine that you are performing to an audience in a major concert
hall or making a video in which you are demonstrating how it should be
done. Review your performance, even if it is only a single note,
repeat or move on as you see fit.
Is it working:
Have a realistic view on what progress you expect to make immediately
and in the longer term. For example, some gentle long notes and
flexibilities should improve the response of the embouchure within
minutes whereas it may take weeks to see any great development in
range or sound quality. Be patient but constantly re-assess how things
are going so that you can persevere or adjust as necessary.
The 1% rule is used by some sportsmen in training and can be usefully
applied; a difference of just 1% in performance ability by doing extra
work may be the significant factor between success and failure.
Repeated additions of 1% will become even more significant as time
Cliché or not, a journey of a thousand miles really does start with a
Our mental disposition to our work is also a factor in how much we can
achieve. We have a choice: we can approach our instruments with an
attitude of pessimism or reluctance and the results will probably
reflect it; on the other hand we can assure ourselves that because we
are organised in our mind our session is going to be productive, we
are going to enjoy it and make some definite steps forward, even if we
are only laying some ground work for tomorrow.
Slogans on the wall, practice diaries etc can all help but in the end
the pleasure and stimulation we get from our playing are the best
How long should I practise for:
The amount of time spent practising is less important than the use it
is put to. 30 minutes really sensible, dedicated practice is better
than 3 hours of mindless doodling. This is not an excuse for doing the
bare minimum. If you can only spare a few minutes then use them
wisely; make sure the basics are covered, breathing, embouchure
response, production control etc. Check out a few low notes as well as
a few high ones. If necessary spend time working on current repertoire
but rather than simply playing through, economise on time by picking
out the most troublesome passages for particular attention. Try and
include a few minutes of something entertaining, busk a tune, try to
play something you know fairly well from memory, try it in different
keys. Whatever you do, concentrate on sound quality and enjoy what you
If more time is available work longer at basics, developing techniques
and repertoire building. Spend a few minutes doing some sight reading
or developing other musical skills such as transposing, reading from
other clefs etc.
The more time spent playing as well as possible the longer the benefit
will last. Techniques will be positively reinforced, muscle tone and
strength will develop with the consequent benefit to sound quality and
stamina. In order to extend practice sessions substantially it is
important to organise a sensible schedule that will allow time to work
on all aspects of your playing without you becoming terminally
fatigued. Leave heavy work such as high register playing till later in
the day. Even if you are working at something which has testing high
register passages, such as Bolero, you can assign a time later in your
practice for the most demanding passages after you have perfected the
rest of the piece.
The majority of your time should be spent on keeping your basic
playing techniques up to the mark. If all is well here then you should
be able to play all but the most extreme music put in front of you.
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