Make Practice Worth Your Time: 8 Tips

Effective Practice

To perform well, you must practice well. Trumpet skills are not awarded for warming the practice seat. Here are 8 tips to make your practicing mean progress:

  1. Schedule your practice time. Consistent practice is the key to improvement. You need to plan a time each day when you will practice. If you wait until you feel like practicing, or wait for an opening to appear in your day, you will find that you don’t practice. If you don’t make time to practice, you’ll find time for everything except practicing.
  2. Gather all of your equipment. It is annoying to sit down to practice, only to find that you forgot your metronome. Or the music you intended to work, or your notebook with your goals, or your mouthpiece…Make your practice effective by gathering everything you need before you head to the practice room! It helps if you can store all your gear in one place.
  3. Set goals and structure your time. Plan what you are going to practice and what you want to achieve in a practice session. Determine which exercises you will use in your routine, which selections from your literature you will clean, which solo section you will transcribe, etc. You can always adapt your plan as you go, but don’t just sit down and noodle on your horn, thinking this will make you a better musician!
  4. Remember to rest. You shouldn’t have your horn on your face non-stop. This wears you down and doesn’t build endurance. A good rule of thumb is to rest about as much as you play. This doesn’t mean you should twiddle your thumbs or check Facebook in between licks! Use intervals of rest to practice solfege and sight-singing, work through difficult rhythms, read books to enhance your musical knowledge, or break out your pencil and mark phrasing into your music. Resting should still be practicing, but without the trumpet on your lips.
  5. Record yourself. Sometimes you could just swear you were playing that phrase with great dynamics, or clear articulation, or a brilliant tone, but your teacher insists you aren’t. Pull out your phone, or your computer, or your tablet, or any recording device, and capture yourself playing. You will probably be surprised at what you hear. It may just turn out that your teacher was right. Recording yourself often is one of the best ways to boost your practice results!
  6. Use your metronome effectively. Always have your met at the ready, and make sure it is loud enough to hear while you are playing! Don’t just set it to every beat. Set the tempo slower so that it clicks on every other beat, the first beat of each measure only, once every two measures, etc. This will make your mind internalize the pulse rather than react to the metronome! In addition, focusing on the metronome will take your mind off of other aspects of playing, and many problems will correct themselves as you focus on honing your time and rhythmic accuracy.
  7. Use your pencil. Changes that aren’t recorded are likely to be lost. You don’t need to make your music look like it was used to smash mosquitoes. But as you make musical decisions in your practice, mark them lightly into your score so that you will remember them the next time you play. Also make notes of parts you need to spend more time on, and write goals in your notebook.
  8. Go slowly. If you practice making mistakes, you will perform mistakes. Take your music as slowly as you need to play it correctly, every time. Then gradually speed it up. When playing a difficult passage, take it so slowly that someone walking by wouldn’t recognize what you are playing.

You will only perform as well as you practice, so take your practice time seriously and set yourself up for success!

Why Copying Isn’t Cheating (In Fact, It’s Essential)

Copying Isn't Cheating

You want to be unique. You want your own sound, your own style, to possess the kind of trumpet sound so divine that other earthlings cannot fathom how you, a mortal, could produce it.

The way to achieve this never-before-heard sound is, of course, to shut out the sounds of all other trumpet players past and present so that you will not be influenced by their less-than-supernatural utterings…

Well, you are wrong, about one thing at least.

You can have your own amazing, unique, and imaginative sound on the trumpet. But if you want to accomplish this lofty goal, you must listen to and imitate great trumpet players!

Imitation is at the root of what you are trying to accomplish. If you want to produce a beautiful trumpet tone, you must first be capable of hearing that sound in your own mind. If you’ve never heard a beautiful trumpet sound, you may as well use the horn to sound like a beluga whale. Assuming that you’ve listened to beluga whales enough to sound like one…

Listening to the masters of the trumpet will not hinder your ability to develop your sound. On the contrary, it will enable you to build the sound that you want, instead of accepting the first product that emanates from your bell in your isolated practice room. By imitating great trumpet artists, you command the horn, rather than letting it master you. Do you want a huge, expansive tone like Phil Smith? The brilliance of Bud Herseth? The dexterity of Clifford Brown? Then you’d better get listening.

As you listen to trumpet artists, or great artists of any instrument, you supply yourself with a musical palette from which to paint. Listening and imitating great musicians will stock your mind with concepts of tone color, pitch, rhythm, phrasing, volume, vibrato, and so forth. As you listen intently and intelligently to artists, your mind will memorize the sounds. Then when you play, you can choose from this powerful arsenal of aural concepts to create a mental signal. It is these distinctive mental concepts of sound that will direct your body’s responses and send the sound you want ringing from your trumpet.

Certainly it is possible to take imitation too far. It would be unwise to limit yourself to listening and slavishly copying only one or two musicians. It is important to “draw on as many good influences as possible.” This will fill your mind with ideas, which “need not be copied literally…but should be gathered, tried, adapted, and ultimately made one’s own.”

In short, listening to fine musicians will make your mind a repository of fascinating and desirable sounds. As you take your trumpet to the shed and attempt to reproduce those sounds, you train your body to respond to those mental signals.

To illustrate:

I was practicing the opening measures of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, an iconic solo in trumpet literature. In my first attempt I gave myself a directive something like this: “Play loudly with a big sound and strong, clear articulation.”

In my second attempt, I simply gave myself this directive: “Play this like Bud Herseth with the Chicago Symphony.”

The results of my second attempt were overwhelmingly better than the first, because I had listened to Bud Herseth’s rendition of that passage so many times as to create a vivid mental signal which elicited a precise response from my body.

When you imitate the grandiose and nuanced performances of great artists, you may find yourself frustrated by the initial results. Don’t let this stop you. In the words of Arnold Jacobs, “The important thing is not what you sound like; it’s what you want to sound like.”

To know what you want to sound like, you must to listen to other musicians, then take their ideas to the practice room. In doing this you will discover what you like and what you want to emulate, and gradually your own voice will emerge as you make intentional decisions in your musical execution. Your imagination will create new, fantastic soundscapes with the materials you have given it and with persistent practice, you will play what you want to hear.

Copying isn’t cheating. It’s mastering your horn and feeding your imagination. And your imagination has the power to turn you into the trumpet artist you’ve always wanted to be.