Here you'll find my thoughts on teaching, playing, and other assorted nonsense. Hope it helps. :)

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:

Michelleyesyesyesyesyesyesyes7 days
Benyesnoyesnoyesnoyes4 days

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:

Michelleyesyesyesyesyesyesyes7 days
Bennonononononoyes1 day

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!

Mr. L

"Lemley's Rules"

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 an 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!

Be well,