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3. What is the best way to practice?

All students of the trombone (or any instrument, for that matter) recognize that developing good practice habits is important for having consistent improvement. I am often asked about practicing, and whether there is any particular "way" that is good to practice. Here are a few thoughts.

There are very few things in life, beyond religion and mathematics, that can be considered "Truth" statements. Having said that, beware the teacher that says there is "only one" way to practice.

Because people are different, everyone practices differently. Some people prefer to get up in the morning and immediately begin playing; others prefer to practice in the afternoon. What is important is for you to develop a routine that allows you to warm-up, maintain skills you already have, and hone and develop new skills. You may want to first look at my article The Difference Between Playing and Practicing.

Roger Bobo, formerly tubist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and now living and playing in Italy, has written an excellent book on warming up and fundamentals called Mastering the Tuba: Volume 1. It is published by BIM and is one of the best resources of its kind, not only for the variety of exercises it contains, but for Bobo's remarkably insightful comments on the warm up process. The book is useful for players of any brass instrument (not only tuba).

As part of a daily routine, I recommend covering the following types of repertoire:

See Roger Bobo's book and my resource College Level Bass Trombone Repertoire for suggestions on repertoire to use as well as tips on balancing these kinds of playing in your practice routine.

My former colleague in the Boston Symphony Orchestra, trombonist Norman Bolter, together with his wife, Carol Viera, has put together an excellent booklet about practicing called Methods of Effective Practice. It is clear, concise and the most useful written material I have seen on the subject. The book is only available at Norman Bolter's in-person engagements, such as master classes, so for information about the booklet, Norman Bolter's masterclass schedule, as well as other excellent trombone/music resources that they have produced, contact >Norman Bolter through his publisher: AIR-EV Productions, 675 V.F.W. Parkway, Suite 352, Chestnut Hill, MA 02167 USA. Further information about Norman's music and class schedule may be found on the Air-ev Productions Website.

An excellent on-line resource with many practical tips about practicing can be found in The Instrumental Music Resource Page which is maintained by trombonist Dan Traugh. His page has valuable resources that are extremely helpful, especially for the beginner or teacher of beginners. I recommend his common-sense advice highly.

The trombone-l email discussion group is a great resource for tips about practicing and virtually any aspect of trombone performance.

Some of the most insightful posts come from trombonist and teacher Sam Burtis, who goes by the email name of Sabutin. With his permission, I am reprinting below one of his many useful messages. Sam was responding to a discussion of how to actually stop a note. One person on the list implied that a player doesn't actually actively work to stop a note, but that it rather stops by itself. Sam's response included some excellent advice on how to recognize, diagnose and solve playing problems:

No offense, [John Doe], but this is sloppy ARE supposed to stop a note; the air MUST stop SOMEHOW or the note will continue. HOW you stop a note is the problem here...

There are many ways to end a note cleanly...which one you use depends on many factors, especially the volume of the note and the range. The BEST way to end a note, or for that matter do ANYTHING on the horn, is to HEAR it.

I don't mean to sound mysterious here, but it's true. If you hear the note correctly, you will play it correctly, w/out the interference of the mind.

A teaching story...

Once there were an ant and a centipede living in the same house, and the centipede was continually chasing the ant around, meaning to eat it for dinner. (Centipedes are quite vicious, y'know. And fast, too.)

Up and down, back and forth, the chase went on, under the sofa, across the living room, behind the bed, around the garbage pail, day after day after day after day....until one day the ant found itself looking down on the centipede from the safety of a high table.

And the ant had an inspiration.

The centipede looked up.

And the centipede never moved again.

There are too many muscles involved in making music to think...if you HEAR the music correctly, the body will take care of itself to a large degree, leaving you free to play. understand all that, but you STILL have trouble ending notes. Like a hitch in a batter's swing, you just can't seem to stop yanking closed your throat, or pinching your lips closed, or. . . most common. . . sticking some part of your tongue up into the top of your mouth.

First, you have to identify WHAT it is that you are doing.

Second, you have to stop doing that and replace it with something that works correctly.

Third, you have to make that replacement action reflexive by repetition. (Practice.)

I'm not going to tell you WHAT to do, that's up to you...only how to approach it. (Telling you WHAT to do would deprive you of the chance to internally, and w/out words, find YOUR way of doing it. Also, I'm built a certain way, play certain idioms, certain equipment..."my" way of doing anything, unless you're my identical twin, will not necessarily be "your" way. Find your own way.)

Tap your foot. (Gently) Play a long fourth line F, mf. At the end of a certain number of beats, stop the note, and WATCH yourself as you stop it.

HOW did you stop it? Throat constriction? Pressed lips? Tongue? Stop blowing? (from the diaphragm?) Taking the mouthpiece from the lips? Some combination of these?

Repeat this until you SEE your own habitual mechanism. Now simplify.Experiment. What way or combination of ways produces the best, smoothest result?

Try other notes, other volumes. FIND IT YOURSELF!!! Then start incorporating this into your daily playing and practice, until it is reflexive.

Sounds easy, right? Not! It takes effort and time to see yourself, to become conscious of what you're doing, and more effort and time to change it. But it's worth it.

This goes for ANY physical "problem" on the instrument.

(A hint w/this specific problem...see the breath as an arrow, starting in the body and going into the horn. Now stop that arrow.)


Sam Burtis has also written one of the most useful and comprehensive methods on the trombone called "The American Trombone." The product of decades of learning, playing and teaching, and relying heavily on the influences of his teachers (especially Carmine Caruso) and his many role models (including some of the greatest trombonists, especially Jimmy Knepper), Sam's book is not only very good, but it is revolutionary. At over 200 pages, it contains practical advice and exercises designed to help a player reach his potential by systematic and careful LISTENING. The advice he gives in the comments printed above is just a taste of the kind of common sense (which, he often reminds me, "If it's so common, how come so few people do it?!) and practical storytelling which permeates his book. I have found "The American Trombone" to be very helpful not only as I work with my own students, but in my own playing. For information on how to get this book (which is self published by Sam, and as such, deserves the kind of support that only "word of mouth" publicity can generate), email Sam Burtis.

The first teacher I had at my undergraduate alma mater, Wheaton College (IL), was George Krem. George was one of the most disciplined players I have ever known, and would often plan out his practice day early in the morning. He would take care to articulate, either verbally to himself or in written form, his short, medium and long term goals for the day, and how each thing he was going to do would fit into a plan to accomplish his goals. Goerge would lay out a stack of practice material and work until he had completed everything he had planned. Some days it took an hour, other days it took five hours.

The important thing from George Krem's example is the value of personal discipline. His model of discipline may not work for everyone, but it was a model that works well for many people. Many students have asked me about this area of discipline, and how to keep one's focus when practicing. Here are a few questions to ask yourself if you're having trouble getting things accomplished:

The answers to these questions will be a starting point in determining the cause of your lack of focus. Most people to whom I have posed these questions can quickly self-diagnose what they need to do. Developing self-motivation and focus is something that needs to come from within - if you need someone else to provide you with your inspiration, you are in for a long, tough road ahead.

Now and then a student will be perplexed as to why they can't seem to get anything done in the practice room. Here's what I did with one student:

Concerned with the fact that a talented student of mine was not showing results commensurate with the amount of time he claimed to practice, I instructed him to tape record a typical day of practice. I asked him to turn on the tape when he entered the room and turn it off when he packed up and left, for as many sessions as he did in a day.

He proudly brought me the (three 90 minute) tapes a week later and I was horrified to see how many times he started an etude and didn't finish it, let obvious problems go uncorrected and - most of all - how many times he was interrupted by other students ("Hey man, how's it going, you wanna hang out, it's a nice day outside?"). The tape just kept rolling.

When I asked the student to listen to his own tape, he, too, couldn't believe it, and he was convicted by his own laziness. His 4 hours of practice a day really amounted to about 45 minutes of unproductive playing (playing is very different that practicing). He got his rear in gear and really started working.

I've used this tool several times. On occasion a student won't even bother to give me the tape; he's so embarassed and gets convicted right away. In any case, when a student makes a realization by his own deeds, the impression may stick better.

There is another tool that I use regularly in my personal practice as well as in teaching. Edward Kleinhammer used to have an old Wollensack reel-to-reel tape recorder in his studio. Every now and then, during a lesson, he would tape record my playing - usually only about four to eight measures. He would record at a fast speed and then play it back at a slower speed, resulting in the passage being heard at half speed and one octave lower. This tool was extremely effective in pinpointing problems of intonation and articulation. Also, it is much easier to notice dragging rhythm this way as well.

I highly recommend the periodic use of a tape recorder in this way. Today, it is not necessary to purchase a reel-to-reel machine to accomplish this; inexpensive hand held dictating recorders can be found with dual speed. The important thing is not the quality of sound of the recording, rather it is only being used as a diagnostic tool for pitch, rhythm and articulation (note shapes). You don't need to use it very often, but now and then, it's a good "reality check." Don't become demoralized when what you hear back doesn't sound very good. The tape recorder doesn't lie, but when you hear a problem at half speed and can fix it, your "normal" playing will really shine.

Trombonist Galen Zinn has developed a useful practice chart which lists various categories of things trombonists should be sure to cover each day in daily practice. The chart is designed to allow players to check off each item for each day of the week which may help players become more disciplined in being sure important concepts are covered each day. While the chart is specifically designed for bass trombonists (by way of some particular books and excercises the author wishes to incorporate into his routine) the general categories are applicable to all trombonists.

This practice chart may be downloaded free of charge in several formats. Note that the links designated PC (for IBM compatible machines) and MAC (for Macintosh compatible machines) will cause the chart to be downloaded to your hard drive as a Microsoft Excel document (best quality). The JPEG link gives the same chart in a graphic file format which will open as a JPEG document which is convenient but does not have the clarity of the Excel document. My thanks to Galen Zinn for providing this helpful resource, and to Chris Waage who put the charts into the Excel format and who has allowed me to offer them for free download through my website.

And now, here are some sage words from renowned concert violins, Pamela Frank, from an article in the 1998 issue of MadAminA by George Sturm:

It is obvious that Pamela Frank is as articulate verbally as she is expressive musically, that she has thought long and hard about many of the basic and difficult issues facing today's music and those who would make it. What would she say, for instance, to violin teachers if she had a chance to communicate with the? Her response was immediate:

"I would say, please don't just teach violin music. Teach that all music is created equal; that it's the music that's great and we who are small; that solo and recital music and chamber music and orchestral music are all essential ingredients of our art. If you're teaching a Mozart concerto, quote a Mozart opera, show the relationship to a Mozart symphony or a string quartet. Use the composer's work as a whole and the particular piece you're teaching as an example. Have a context in which to fit a violin piece, not the other way around. The student should fall in love with the composer, not a violin concerto. In that way, it won't matter where that student ends up in the professional ranks. I feel that music teaching is so compartmentalized, especially in the better schools where there's an elitist mentality that creates disappointment after graduation. We're all told we're going to become soloists. There's something really warped about that. I can honestly say that I would be happy doing anything in music. It's not more glamorous to be in front of an orchestra; it's just one of many aspects of music making. I'd be thrilled to play a Beethoven or a Mahler symphony in the back of a section. I'd advise teachers to treat music as all equally important and to teach humility as a result."

We thought her counsel to music teachers so focused that we asked her to dispense some advice to music students. Again, not a moment's hesitation:

"Don't practice ten hours a day. Practice two hours without the TV on, and attack your demon. Don't practice what you already do well. There are people with great tone working on their tone, and people with great intonation practicing scales all day. A lot of people waste a lot of time thinking that sheer number of hours matters, rather than the quality of the practicing. I have honestly never practiced more than three hours a day. I really believe you can undo things you have learned by overpractice and just keeping the fingers moving. Keep your practice time focused and limited, and go do other things when you're done. Play with other people, anybody, better or worse than you. Go to museums, go to movies, go to recreational things - as they say, have a life. Nothing will mean anything if practicing is the only thing you do."

Finally, people often ask me how long they should practice each day, and whether it is possible to practice too much. My answer is simple: practice for as long as you can get something productive done while keeping in mind other playing you may need to do in the day. Never practice when you are unfocused or distracted. And if when you play, it hurts - STOP! Simple rules.

I'd better get back to practicing!

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