The Anatomy of a Practice Day: The Warmup
Sunday, October 21, 2018 by Brett Lemley | Uncategorized
Ok, so you’ve decided to be the best player you can be. You know that you need to practice every day, because both your private teacher and your band director tell you so. But what does practice mean? Can you just noodle around on the instrument and improve? Well, yes, but I wouldn’t call it the best way to get better. In the next three articles I’m going to lay out what I think is the best way for you to practice and become a better brass player. I’ll also fill you in on some things I wish I had been taught when I was a kid, so hopefully you won’t run into some of the same problems I did when I was young.
I’m going to suggest that you divide your practice day into 3 sections, of 10-15 minutes each, and rest in between. Why rest? Well, we rest because playing a brass instrument is hard, and we get tired doing it. We should practice in a way that allows us to minimize that fatigue and stay fresh while we’re practicing. Plus, if you’re only practicing 10-15 minutes in any one section, it’s easier to fit practice in between other activities if you’re busy.
I like to think of a practice day in terms of three parts:
- The Warmup
- Lesson Assignment
- Literature/Ensemble Music/Free Time
Let’s see how that would look like on a given day. In this article I’ll talk about the Warmup, and in the next two articles I’ll talk about practicing your Lesson Assignment and practicing Literature, Ensemble Music, and Free Time.
When we warm up, we’re waking up our face, getting air going, and working on our sound. I like to warm up using four things: A) Buzzing, B) Long Tones, C) Lip Slurs, and D) Scales. Let’s talk about each of those.
To buzz or not to buzz? I know fantastic players who swear by a long buzzing routine at the start of the day, and I know equally fantastic players who never buzz. I’ll let you discover what you think, but I suggest you buzz for a few minutes to start your practice day. If you need help with learning how to buzz on the lips or the mouthpiece, go to YouTube to find great videos of players of all brass instruments demonstrating how to buzz for your instrument.
What I suggest is very simple. On your lips alone, buzz a pitch that’s easy for you to produce, and hold it for 5-10 seconds. Do that a few times, resting after each one. This gets blood going to the muscles. Then, start on that pitch again, but move it up and down, like a siren, but again only as far as you’re comfortable. Remember we’re waking things up, and not pushing too hard.
Then, on your mouthpiece, do the same thing. You may find that the pitches that are easy on your lips are different from those that are easy on the mouthpiece. No problem, just go with what’s easy for now. If you decide to take things further later, go for it. You may one day be a buzzing whiz!
At first, spend only 3-5 minutes on buzzing. That’s enough to get started for the day.
Now for the fun part (he says ironically). The first thing I want to say is yes, I understand that no-one likes long tones. I hate them, you hate them, everybody hates them. But here’s the thing: you need them, I need them, everybody needs them.
Long tones build strength and stamina, which are critical for brass players, and they also give you a daily opportunity to work on your tone. Don’t skip them, though you don’t have to spend hours on them. Simply playing a couple scales in whole notes will do the trick if you don’t have much time. If you do have time, however, try this:
Take a nice, full breath, and play a concert F at a comfortable volume. Hold it until you run out of air. (When you do this, the last couple seconds won’t sound very good, but you’ll be exercising the blowing muscles, so you’re working on two concepts for the price of one.) Then rest as long as it took to play that note. Then, do the same thing on an E, then an F#, then an E-flat, then a G, and so on, continuing on higher and lower notes until you start to get a little fatigued. Then rest a few minutes before moving to the next exercise. You’ll be surprised how quickly you get stronger, and those “high” notes that were hard before don’t seem so hard now!
It’s important not to push too hard on long tones and wear yourself out. Make sure you’re still comfortable with the notes you’re playing, and only play as high as you can with your best sound. If you start sounding bad, that’s it for today. Maybe you’ll get that note tomorrow! :)
After Long Tones (however you do them), rest a few minutes then move on to:
Now things start getting more fun. As brass players, We can play a bunch of different notes without changing our fingers (or slide position). Learning to slur between these notes has a lot of benefits:
1) They’re a great workout (remember we need to build strength and endurance)
2) They develop control, and
3) They help you develop your sound.
There are hundreds of great lip slur ideas out there, so I won’t suggest anything specific. Just make sure you’re always playing with your best sound, and that your slurs sound clean and clear. Spend anywhere from 5-10 minutes on lip slurs, with lots of rest to make sure you don’t tire. Again, if you’re sound suffers on higher notes, stop there and try to clean it up next time.
I know that nobody likes to practice scales, but hear me out. :)
Not all music is in the same key. And, by learning different scales we learn to play in different keys, which makes music easier to learn, and therefore less work and more fun! Think of it this way, the more you know, the easier it is to play. And, the easier it is to play, the less you need to think about how to play the music, and the more you can think about making music and enjoying yourself!
Try this: Play all the scales you know every day. Before you know it, this only takes a minute or two. If you have a new scale, play it three times a day for a week, then add it to the ones you already know. If you learn a new scale every day, you’ll learn all the major scales in 15 weeks, and you’ll never again fear a scale test. For you beginners, yeah, scale tests are a thing later on, but don’t worry. Practice my way and they’ll be a breeze.
If you haven’t taken your first break yet, do that now. You’re warmed up, but if we push to much then you’ll start to tire, and warming up will turn into wearing down. Be careful, and try to stay fresh. If you’re getting tired during practice, either back off the difficulty or take more breaks.
Try this for a few days and let me know how it goes. Good luck, and see you again soon!
The Power of Daily Practice!
Friday, February 9, 2018 by Brett Lemley | Uncategorized
The power of daily practice
Brass playing is simultaneously a set of skills, like tone production, tonguing, fingering/slide skill, etc., and also a physical activity, though one that uses small muscles. Also, air control plays a huge role in playing a brass instrument. The only way to get better at all these facets of brass playing is to practice, and how often (and how well!) you practice will determine how fast you improve.
First, Let’s Get Real
When I say practice, I mean focused work on your instrument. As a beginner, you’ll be spending 30 minutes every day working on your skill, 45 minutes if you’re in Intermediate School, and 60 minutes in High School.
Side note: Some elementary school band directors try to make it sound easier by saying that 20 minutes a day, or even 10, will do the trick.
But, let’s do the math:
Let’s say we have two brand new 5th grade trumpet players, Michelle and Ben. Michelle practices 30 minutes every day, while her classmate Ben takes his band director’s advice and practices 10 minutes a day. After a week, Michelle has spent 210 minutes (7 x 30) playing the trumpet, while Ben has only spent 70 minutes (7 x 10) minutes playing. At the end of a month, Michelle has played 900 minutes (30 days x 30 minutes), while Ben has only played 300 minutes (30 days x 10 minutes). Let’s see, who’s going to be the better player? Clearly, Michelle is on her way to being the best player in her class, and Ben is barely keeping up.
So, with that out of the way, 30 minutes it is. :)
Why Every Day?
(Or “well, there goes Friday…”)
One issue I hear a lot goes something like this: “Well, on Saturdays I have soccer games, so I can’t practice on Saturdays.”
Of course, the truth is that you can do anything you want. You can practice only one day a week if you want to. But, before you decide to do that, re-read that paragraph about the math. Also, remember that brass playing is a physical activity, much more so than playing a woodwind instrument. To train your body and get stronger, your body needs consistency. When I was a kid, my first trumpet teacher, Norman Bailey, put it to me this way:
“Every day you skip, erases a day of practice.”
So sure, skip Saturday if you need to, but just understand that by doing that, you’ve erased the practice you did on Friday. Again, let’s examine Michelle and Ben, but now Ben’s gotten the message and is doing 30 minutes a day. Well, sort of. He still doesn’t practice every day, but he practices every other day. So:
So, just by looking at the above example, Ben is way behind Michelle to begin with. But, by Mr. Bailey’s logic, each of Ben’s “no” days erases the “yes” the day before. So, Tuesday erases Monday, et cetera, so effectively the chart looks like this:
Now you begin to see why “every other day” practicers don’t do so well. Effectively, Michelle is practicing 7 times as much as Ben! And Michelle gets all the accolades, and all the solos. :)
Now, is it really true that you lose all your progress when you skip a day? Probably not, but it’s definitely worse than just not practicing that day. Think of it this way: Either you’re getting better (practicing), or you’re getting worse (not practicing).
So next time you decide to take a day off, you know you’re not just losing one day. Keep that in mind on that day when you’re “busy.” And, I hope this helps clear up why we teachers are so keen on practicing every day!
In a future post I’ll talk about what a good practice day looks like for brass players. But until then, just make sure you’re playing every day, and see what happens!
Best of luck, and let me know how you’re doing!
Wednesday, December 27, 2017 by Brett Lemley | Philosophy
Over the years, I've noticed a lot of patterns that keep recurring through both my trumpet playing and in life. I started working them into my teaching, slowly figuring out where these observations fit into the grand scheme of brass pedagogy, and in my studio they've come to be known as my "Rules." So much so, in fact, that upon some mishap or other, a student will sometimes stop and say "I know, I know, Rule #2," and we'll have a laugh and continue.
So, after a good while using these rules in my teaching, and in my life, I offer them to you as my first blog post on my new website. This is meant mostly for my students, but I'd love to hear feedback from anyone who finds them interesting.
Rule #1: Don't Freak Out
Often, I'll have a student who's maybe nine or ten months into lessons, and they'll run into something that's been giving them trouble, and they'll get frustrated or even upset. I love this moment, because it gives me a great chance to really hammer home how I feel about making music. I'll stop the lesson for a moment, give a solemn nod, and say, "Well, you know, this is a good time to remember Rule #1." I then ask if they remember what Rule #1 is, and of course they have no idea what I'm talking about. I then encourage them to tell me what they think it might be. "Always do your best" is a common response, or "Concentrate."
I'll always say, "That's a good rule, but it's not Rule #1." I give them a couple more chances, then I'll tell them what I think is the most important rule in trumpet playing, and indeed in life:
Don't Freak Out.
This always gets a puzzled look, then a chuckle. Then I can explain that there's no endeavor in life where freaking out is your best option. In fact, freaking out will usually get you deeper into trouble than you were before. In the case of the student, getting upset or losing control won't solve whatever problem they're facing. Being calm, on the other hand, will give them the opportunity to look at the problem rationally, and they'll be able to solve it more easily, especially if they've got me there to help. At that point, they are ready for Rule #2:
Rule #2: Pay. Attention
This is the one that leads to the most problems in lessons, and probably why there's an accident every morning, noon, and night on the highway. In all honesty, the problem that my student freaked out about in the above example was probably caused by not paying attention. Why on earth would someone play a B-natural when they're in a flat key? Why would they play a half note for just one beat?
They're not Paying. Attention.
In most cases, if the player is paying attention to what they're doing they're not going to miss the flat, or mis-count. Just like a group of drivers who are all observing their surroundings are not going to go around hitting each other. Look at the time signature, look at the key, check out the range and the rhythms, start counting in your head. Just like: Check your speed, check your mirrors, check the other cars, et cetera.
This leads to inevitable questions about forgotten fingerings, what key they're in, how long a certain note is, and so forth. I never answer these questions directly, but rather I guide them to the answer, as long as they follow:
Rule #3: Never, Ever Guess. Always Think It Through
In my studio, a guess is always wrong, even if it's accidentally right. The reason is, you can't replicate a guess. It's better to think it through and be wrong, because we can fix the reasoning process, but I can't fix a guess. If a student skips a step, that's cool, we'll find that step and make sure they get it right. But, I never accept a guess, and my students know I can always tell. :)
Well, that's it for now. I do have a rule #4, but 3 is a better number for this sort of thing, so I'll leave it there for now. Let me know what you think!