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Practicing Tips and Tricks

Practicing Tips and Tricks

By Bryan Powell, Brass Instructorat the Lesson Studio(trombone,trumpet,tuba, french horn, and baritone/euphonium)

Hello, and thanks for reading! This article is meant to share some of the practicing tips and tricksI have acquired over many years of both teaching brass lessons, as well as my own personal practice of the trombone. Though these tips will primarily focus on the brass family of instruments, I think you’ll find that many of the concepts below can be applied to virtually any other instrument as well. I hope you find something here that is helpful to you and your own musical journey. Good luck, and happy practicing!

Just Start!

Sometimes half the battle is just getting the ball rolling. Practicing can seem like a daunting task to students of any age (myself included!). Maybe you feel there’s just too much material to get through, or that you procrastinated and now you have a concertor lesson tomorrow and you don’t even know where to start.

We’ve all been there. Inertia can be a powerful tool, however. Put simply, Inertiameans that something (or someone) tends to keep doing what it’s doing until an external force changed it. Imagine a ball traveling through space. Until something hits it, or it gets pulled towards something else’s gravity, that ball will keep moving unchanged till the end of time.

Well, the same thing can happen to us. If you find yourself relaxing on the couch six episodes into your favorite netflix show, what do you figure are the chances that you’ll move on to episode seven? It happens to the best of us of course. But know that you always have the power to be that “external force” to just start practicing, even if for a little while.

In my experience, once you begin you tend to keep on going, just like that ball in space. On days where getting some work done seems impossible, I commit to practice for just five minutes. Nine times out of ten though, that five minutes turns into 20, then 40, and often more. It was all about getting that ball rolling. Give it a try the next time you’re feeling sluggish, and just start.

Time, Location, and Length of Practice Sessions

Attentive practicing on a regular basis is a must if you want to become a better musician. As obvious as that may sound, I think there are a few simple factors to consider here apart from just how often/long you practice your instrument.

When do you tend to practice? As in, what time of the day? For most of my students, they’re practicing after school gets out and (hopefully!) over the weekend. Everyone is wired differently though, so what I’d recommend to you is to find the time of day that you are the most alert and prepared to play (if possible). For some students, that might mean heading home after school and getting straight to work because after dinner they get sleepy and wind down for the night. For others, the opposite may be true. Playing right after an exhausting 8-hour school day might be the last thing a 12-year-old is prepared to do. Both time and mental energy are resources to consider here. Try not to waste either!

Where you practice is also worth considering. As a trombone player, in a perfect world I’d like to play in the biggest hall/space available to me at all times. But that’s not always in the cards. So I compromise by practicing in my room, office, or occasionally in a larger rehearsal hall at school if I am lucky enough to find one open and available. Basically I go for the best option available at the time, which is something I’d recommend we all do.

Take it to the woodshed

Something additional to think about here; avoid distractions when able! Find a place to play at school or home that is as noise-free as is able (within reason). So, no tv, video games or kitchen clatter if possible. Maybe put your phone/tablet on airplane mode too?  For me, this meant playing in the basement a lot growing up. Not just for my benefit, but so I could play later into the evening without bothering my family too much. The term “woodshedding” or “shedding” is used by musicians to mean lots of practice, but it comes from the story that saxophonist Charlie Parker practiced in the woodshed behind his family’s house. Try a few options out if you haven’t already. Maybe the family garage is the best sounding room in the house? Maybe even the backyard, weather/neighbors permitting?

Time is of the essence

Lastly, how long should you be practicing in the first place? Many things to consider with that question, but let me keep it simple with some food for thought here. What are your goals? How old are you and how long have you been playing? Any auditions, concerts, or gigs coming up? How much time can you set aside for a practice session? I want every student to get the most out of their lessons with me. For my youngest students who are just getting their feet wet I ask that they shoot for 15-30 minutes a day, or about half the duration of lesson time that they spend with me per week. For my more advanced students who may be section leaders at their school and/or prepping for honors bands or All-State auditions, I suggest they aim to play 30-60 minutes (or more) daily. I recognize that these are goals that aren’t likely to be achieved every single day. But I have found them to be a good jumping off point for students of all ages. There’s of course nothing stopping you from practicing longer than these suggestions by the way. If you have the focus, endurance, drive, and time, few things can stand in the way of your progress.

Be Creative and Have Fun!

I don’t think there’s a ton of reasons to play an instrument without having fun, especially for beginners and those learning for personal enjoyment. Does it take some time to learn the basics before you start playing the songs you really want to learn? Of course. But that doesn’t mean this process has to be dull. Find a way to make practicing fun, or at the very least engaging, as often as possible

People who are curious and creative about their music making stick with it far more often than not in my experience. Learning a new key on the french horn? Why not find a song in that same key and learn to play along with it. Trying to tongue faster on the trumpet? Write down your current record and shoot for a new “High Score” tomorrow.

Not getting the sound you want on your trombone? Try playing back and forth with a friend or recording example to get just a little closer to what you hear in your head.There’s a thousand ways to approach a musical problem, so if/when the going gets tough, see about creating a fun way to solve your specific issue. You just might surprise yourself if you give it a shot.

And yes, woodshedding an exercise or a new technique can be challenging at times too. But I think it’s encouraging to recognize though that getting better technically is in service of becoming a better musician as a whole, thereby giving you the ability to play more music at a higher level than ever before.

 

So even if you’re working hard on something or getting frustrated, the end goal is almost always a worthwhile reward in itself. Don’t take my word for it though. Pick a tune or skill you don’t feel too comfortable with and just go for it. Even if it’s for 10-15 minutes a day for a week, I bet if you really focus on improving that aspect of your playing, by the end of that week you’ll discover how much you got better and how valuable that effort really was.

 

Don’t Forget to Listen

Listening actively to music can be one of the most beneficial ways to improve as a player and musician. And not just professional recordings; listen to yourself! Record yourself as often as you can, even on just a laptop or cellphone. Brass playing can prove physically taxing, so listening to yourself playing a passage can be an invaluable chop break while still improving.

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